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The recent two hour PBS Frontline episode on Netanyahu at War is both an eye opening look into the machinations of Israeli and US leaders and a sad commentary on what is wrong with coverage by mainstream media. This two hour documentary highlights Obama’s stormy attempts at putting daylight into the “special relationship” between Israel and the US and Netanyahu’s righteous and calculated rage. The documentary falls short when it comes to stepping outside the traditional paradigm and exploring Israel/Palestine with a clear headed analysis, respect for international law, and the brutal historical realities that are so often overlooked in US discourse.
To be sure, the documentary is an important glimpse into the minds and handwringing of liberal Zionists and the less than liberal Jewish establishment that has the ear of Washington. There is good background on Bibi Netanyahu’s reactionary angry father, their sojourn in the US where Bibi got his American creds, impeccable accent, and TV persona, the family traumas that solidified his far-right Likudnik outlook, and his megalomaniacal belief in his role as the savior of the Jewish People from the evilness of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. For me, that should be enough to raise serious questions about his qualifications as a leader, but the documentary is too swallowed up visually fawning over the current rightward Israeli flail to ask too many probing questions.
Early on, journalist Marvin Kalb notes, Netanyahu in the Reagan years, the earnest, strident salesperson for Israel, “was great for CNN,” a celebrity of the Jewish right, and the pal to Jewish millionaires. Think a more cultivated version of Donald Trump. He built his career in the US defending fortress Israel, the villa in the jungle, and then returned home to develop his rightwing base and become head of the Likud party, channeling the rage against the Oslo Accords into a frenzy of national religious fascism that led to the assassination of Rabin and the rise of Likud and its ultra-right coalitions.
While government commentators from Netanyahu’s and Obama’s camps are to be expected in such a program, Frontline’s talking heads tend to be largely from the rightwing of the US Jewish establishment or the folks that brought us Oslo and the long running and deeply flawed “peace process.” Just for starters, we have:
1. Aaron David Miller – of Madrid, Oslo, and Camp David, who after years of negotiating has pretty much given up on the two state solution, “the least-worst outcome,” arguing “Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Abbas is ready to pay the price on any of the big issues like Jerusalem or refugees….What’s missing is the kind of local ownership that would make Israelis and Palestinians invest in a serious negotiating process and a solution because they want and need it… The Middle East is on fire. And there are much more important things to do.”[i]
2. Jeffrey Goldberg – Israeli/American journalist who served in the Israeli Defense Force as a prison guard during the First Intifada, was a supporter and apologist for Bush’s invasion of Iraq arguing for the veracity of WMDs, the dangers of a (mythical) Hezbollah biological and chemical weapons program aimed at Israel, and Saddam as the modern day Hitler. He was described as “‘Israel’s favorite neocon’ byThe New York Times’ Roger Cohen.”[ii]
3. Dennis Ross – US diplomat, supporter of the Iraq war, member of the Israel Lobby, worked underPaul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon, co-founded, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-sponsored Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a right wing think tank, and unapologetic defender of Israel. Repeatedly criticized for not being an honest broker with Iran or Arabs, accused of having “‘an inherent tendency to see the world of Arab–Israeli politics first from Israel’s vantage point,’” and pre-consulting with Israelis, worked as a foreign affairs analyst for the Fox News channel.[iii]
4. Martin Indyck – diplomat and former kibbutznik during the Yom Kippur War, US ambassador to Israel, active in AIPAC, the Brookings Institute, WINEP, unabashedly supportive of Israel. Blamed Obama’s reaching out to the Arab world and distancing from Israel as costing him diplomatic capital with Israel and credibility with Arab leaders, “a wrong theory.” Calls rightwing multimillionaire Haim Saban his “godfather,” described by Palestinian negotiators as having a pro-Israel bias and negative attitudes towards Palestinians.[iv]
5. Elliot Abrams – American diplomat involved in theIran-Contra affair, clashed frequently with church and human rights groups, critical of Obama’s demand to stop settlement growth, “current construction in the settlements is not a critical issue, and the expansion of construction into additional lands has been minimal…it is clear that settlement expansion has not significantly eaten away at the territory of an eventual Palestinian state…In the eyes of many Israelis, settlers have every moral right to reestablish communities in places where Jews lived before 1948 and left only because they were driven out violently. (Of course, Palestinians assert a similar claim, ‘the right of return,’ to places where they lived before 1948 in what is now Israel. Leaving aside moral and historical arguments, the difference is that the rebuilt Israeli settlements do not prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, whereas the movement to Israel of millions of Palestinians who claim refugee status…would destroy Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.)”[v]
I have so many issues with these commentators it is really hard to know where to begin: this is not a negotiation between two equal partners who just need to make sacrifices and to want an end to the “conflict.” Israel is a major military power backed by a superpower that has created a state that privileges Jews over its indigenous inhabitants, has a long history of racist and discriminatory laws, and maintains a brutal military occupation and siege over land taken in 1967. Jewish settlements are one of the major impediments to peace and there is a growing international resistance to Israeli policies that includes liberal US Jews struggling with the painful consequences of Zionism and Israeli expansionism. Watching the PBS documentary’s visuals you would think that Palestinians are inexplicably engaged in violent resistance 24/7 and that Israelis are scooping up the body parts of innocent victims on a daily basis. The reality is that Palestinians have very legitimate grievances and their resistance has largely been nonviolent and invisible to the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mainstream media.
In January, 2016 Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor released a report on the past 100 days of Palestinian protests against the occupation. “Between 1 October and 8 January, 3,401 Palestinians, with the youngest only 8 years old, have been arrested by Israeli forces—primarily for throwing stones, a mostly symbolic form of protest that can keep youth in Israeli prison for up to 20 years.
“Israeli soldiers also have killed 150 Palestinians, including seven women and 27 minors, refusing to return 24 of the bodies to their families. Another 15,759 Palestinians have been injured, 92 of them seriously—including 58 journalists and 103 emergency medical personnel. That compares to the killing of 27 Israelis (including one woman) by protesting Palestinians and the injury of 385, of which 33 were serious.
“‘Israel is guilty of severe violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights standards,” says Richard Falk, chairman of the Euro-Med board of trustees and former UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.’”[vi] –
Even the liberal talking heads never step out of the box: there is no mention of the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, the destruction of over 500 villages, the creation of the unresolved Palestinian refugee issue, the Israeli occupation in 1967 of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, and the multitude of UN resolutions including 242 which outlines the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war and a just resolution of the refugee problem. No one seriously challenges the Oslo Accords, the supposed fabulous offer at Camp David, three brutal attacks on Gaza, or the obvious-to-the-rest-of-the-international community major problem with expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. The only Palestinian voices are brief moments with a frustrated negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and the human rights lawyer and PLO negotiator Diana Buttu. I was left wondering is this journalism or propaganda.
Netanyahu’s arrogant and public lecturing of Clinton (who quips, “Who does he think is the super power?) and his rebuke to Obama does not provoke the kind of outrage the bully actually deserves. When Netanyahu intones, “History will not give the Jewish people another chance,” he is abusing and manipulating the memory of the Holocaust, (in his mind for Israel every threat is existential and Jews are the eternal victims and the only victims that actually count). He is also equating all Jewish people with Israel, which is 20% Palestinian. The Diaspora, by the way, is staying home and 11 % of Israeli Jews no longer live in “The Homeland.” Bibi’s obsession with Iran, his ridiculous media blitz filled with ticking bombs, red lines, and a fanciful “zone of immunity” are truly frightening when we realize that the US would have been sucked into Israel’s war, that there was opposition from Netanyahu’s own generals as well as a host of US diplomats, security, and military types. Then there was the real risk that Iran would respond by bombing Israel and seizing the Strait of Hormuz, thus controlling one of the most strategic points for US oil supplies and threatening a massive military conflagration. Anyone remember how well attacking Iraq and Afghanistan turned out for the safety of the region? No pontificator in this two hour saga ever mentioned Israel’s much denied nuclear arsenal and its obvious impact on regional nuclear aspirations.
The talking heads also bought the idea that Obama had seriously challenged Israeli policy, demanding a stop to settlements that provoked shock and rage from Netanyahu who refers to the ’67 borders as the “noose of death.” But really, the ’67 borders with land swaps has been the basis of all the peace negotiations since Oslo, this is hardly a radical idea. It may indeed be an idea whose time has passed because of the aggressive Israeli settlement growth in East Jerusalem, (the future capital of the ephemeral Palestinian state), and the West Bank and the takeover of the Jordan Valley as a closed military zone. This leaves the remaining Palestinians with a collection of disconnected Bantustans separated by walls, military installations, and bypass roads. But the reality is that despite all the speechifying in Cairo and beyond and Netanyahu’s outrageous temper tantrums, the US continued to send Israel $3 billion dollars in military aid every year of Obama’s maligned administration and recently agreed to an additional $45 billion through 2028 to mollify Netanyahu’s hurt feelings over the Iran deal.
This whole episode is treated like a dysfunction between two equally stubborn and misguided men. This ignores how arrogant and dangerous Netanyahu’s approach to internal affairs and international diplomacy actually is. The examples are mind boggling: Netanyahu actively endorsed Romney, spied on Obama’s back channel Iran negotiations, snubbed Kerry in the airport, keeping him waiting, holding court with the press, “This is a very bad idea.” (repeated over and over again.) Then Netanyahu went directly to the US congress to derail the Iranian negotiations, and our congresspeople groveled and fawned, giving him 26 standing ovations. Victory to the Israel Lobby, AIPAC and Christian Zionists, and a profoundly aggressive approach to US and Israeli hegemony. Is anyone appalled but me?
The documentary ends with violence “returning to Israel and Palestinian territories” as if it had ever magically disappeared. No one asked why is there violence? Who is violent? We end with the sense that this is a personal struggle between two equally guilty men. Unfortunately, Netanyahu may be right; the world may not give Israel another chance if it continues to move rightward, promoting a profoundly racist, expansionist, militaristic agenda with no sympathy or understanding of the oppression of Palestinians who only serve as a cause célèbre for repressive Arab regimes. Unfortunately the real tragedy may be that not only did Netanyahu go too far, but Obama never went far enough.