The Next Big Thing? Tipping Point (Con’t)

Last Fall, I was talking with a friend who had cut his teeth reporting on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Not a particularly animated man, my friend lit up when he talked about those days. He wondered what I thought, if anything, would be the big story of my life — some huge change in the world that, if I got lucky, I would be able to report and impact, as well as chronicle for posterity. I joked that it was drug liberalization (in a world where all jokes are at least half truths). Then I said I thought it was the Israel-Palestine issue.

We may be arriving there sooner than I thought. In hippy-dippy terms, ‘It’s all happening right now, man.’

Let me just say that while I’m not all that hopeful for immediate changes on the ground in Israel/Palestine, something is changing rapidly within the discourse in the U.S. — a necessary step, because of the noxious exceptionalism of the “special relationship,” in the quest for a just peace in the Middle East.

There are several encouraging signs. And, in a reversal of the trope used wantonly against Palestinians, Israel and its die-hardest defenders have only themselves to blame: In the past year, from dealing with Turkey to the obstinate reaction to questions about the Gaza War, Israel has not missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to ease emerging tensions with even its closest allies.

A case in point is the fallout from the recent embarrassment of Vice President Joe Biden on his trip to Israel. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced an expansion of East Jerusalem settlements during Biden’s visit. (Bibi bears responsibility whether or not he was “blindsided,” and his attempts to blame the U.S. administration are reprehensible — though at least he didn’t pin it on his usual Arab foils.)

Jim picks up on some of the signs coming from officialdom, discussing Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s toughly-worded responses. He mentions, at the end, a quick-and-dirty response by AIPAC, which is displeased by the “daylight” between Israel and U.S. (created, again, by Israel and its allies, as Steve Clemons mockingly points out here).

Jim also hits on an important post from Mark Perry at’s excellent new Middle East Channel blog (full of great analysis and short reported pieces), where Perry writes that Biden’s even more strident language in private meetings with Netanyahu echoes recent briefings from the Pentagon. Jim’s got the details; I won’t get into it, except to say this is a big story — one which Jim cautiously and conditionally calls a “tipping point” (and I’ll also point you to Spencer Ackerman’s blog, where he focuses on one important tidbit of Perry’s reporting — that CENTCOM head Gen. David Petraeus wanted Israel-Palestine in his purview).

Aside from official statements, there are important shifts in the media. It’s clear now that the settlement project is an addiction and, thus far, one Israel is incapable of tearing itself away from. In reporting what has been called a “slap in the face” of Biden (Chris Matthews’s words — in Israel, it was called “spit”), the U.S. media seems to slowly be coming around on the issue.

Even my old favorite Tom Friedman can understand this: He says Israel is “driving drunk,” and implicitly admits that Israel’s actions indicate it is not serious about wanting “Israel [to] remain a Jewish democracy.” What he’s not clear about is that if Israel does not remain a Jewish democracy, it will not remain at all Jewish in character. De jure apartheid will become untenable and, after that, the best-case-scenario of a secular, democratic (even bi-national) state will relinquish its Jewish identity.

Then last week and this weekend, Jeffery Goldberg and Andrew Sullivan had it out all over the Atlantic‘s blog. Sullivan posted a map used by Palestinian solidarity activists to demonstrate Israeli expansionism over time. Helena Cobban, back posting regularly at her wonderful Just World News blog, picks apart Goldberg’s admonishment of the map. It is Goldberg, she says, who is engaging in “rhetorical legerdemain” (I had to look it up, too), and details his misleading claims about nomenclature in the history of Palestine.

For what it’s worth, Goldberg harps on the map and never takes on Sullivan’s main points. Sullivan, freed, says Phil Weiss, by Leon Wieseltier‘s attack on him, hits back by explaining his use of the map — and it’s the same thing implied by Friedman, only made explicit:

The point of the illustration was to provide some background to the now-unavoidable fact that Israel has every intention of expanding its sovereignty to the Jordan river for ever, to segregate Palestinians into walled enclaves within, and to station large numbers of Israeli troops on the Eastern border.

Goldberg withdraws in the end, saying he won’t blog on Israel-Palestine anymore because he can’t keep responding to every argument. He plans to write “reported, carefully considered, fact-checked and closely-edited articles.”

He calls it a “unilateral disengagement,” and hopes it goes better than the one in Gaza. It shows Goldberg’s own blindness to the intentions and mistakes of the government of Israel, really, because the Gaza unilateral disengagement was drawn up by Ariel Sharon and has gone perfectly according to plan — despite minor rows and the loss of Gush Katif, the move yielded sympathy for settlers and a ‘we already compromised’ — they didn’t; it was unilateral — ‘see what it got us!’ card for the Israeli right.

In the March 11 London Review of Books, (behind a fire-wall, unfortunately,) Yonaton Mendel has a short primer on recent “hasbara” campaigns — essentially Israeli propaganda. In it, he summarizes instructions that would be given to diplomatic conscripts (to include all Israelis and other Jews):

‘Stick to your personal stories,’ they were told, ‘do not be drawn into political discussions. There will be people who irritate you and say that you are occupiers … do not go there.’

It seems this is exactly the playbook Goldberg is drawing on. He promises, in an update, that he will still occasionally post on Israel-Palestine issues on “Goldblog,” but they will be reported pieces. But Goldberg’s oft-stated discomfort with settlers is apt to prove more troubling in reported pieces. Creating a balanced, well-reported news story necessitates the exact admission that Sullivan, Friedman and others in the mainstream U.S. media — but not Goldberg — seem to now be making: that the Israeli government is beholden to the settlers and settlements, in opposition to international law and U.S. policy, and that their intransigence is hurting the U.S. As Ackerman says here, it’s Goldberg’s thinking that is wrong. I’m not sure how reporting and fact-checking can overcome some of these blocks.

But on the brighter side, things seem to really be changing. For one, Goldberg’s day-in-day-out hasbara — literally, in Hebrew, ‘explanation’ — will be absent from the website of a well-respected magazine. Helena, in her post, points out that the big story here is the shift in what the media, so important in public opinion, is willing to cover — that, as Weiss pointed out, Sullivan is unyielding. She writes that it’s “some new and very real ferment on the Palestine Question these days, in the heart of the United States’ chronically very strongly pro-Zionist ‘liberal’ political-cultural establishment. […] To have these matters now being openly discussed within the heart of the US political-cultural establishment is new and important.”

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Ali, I’m glad to hear you favor liberalization of drug laws. I have published at least two short pieces advocating legalization as the only sane alternative to the so-called War on Drugs.

    As to your “tipping-point” point, I say the same thing I said in response to Lobe’s piece: I can’t see it. You’ll be able to knock me over with a feather if this current contretemps leads to any significant change in US policy towards Israel. The Lobby is just too powerful, particularly given the knee-jerk support it receives from the Gentile right. Friedman is leading the soul-searching charge; after the finger-wagging stops and the dust clears (to use a Friedmanesque locution) nothing will have changed.

  2. On one hand, I think many of us feel that US public opinion about the Middle East is on the verge of a massive shift that one bold leader could facilitate, away from unconditional support for Israel. But Obama is NOT that leader. Petraeus is trying to steal the march from Obama, with 2012 in mind. In any case, none of this will change actual US policy, which will continue to support Israel’s crimes. Everyone knows, though no one dares to admit to knowing, that Israel intends to bring about Greater Israel, even if that means starting a regional or even a global war – in fact, most likely Israel is counting on such a wider war. And if the US intended not to go along with that, they’d do a lot more than throw a fit about an ‘insult’.

  3. Eppie, your first two sentences are pure gold. You are so right. But you’re wrong on Petraeus. I hold no brief for the general (having criticized him strongly in print), but what he said had nothing to do with 2012. Indeed, the stupidest thing a potential candidate for the Republican presidentual nomination in 2012 could do would be to criticize Israel sharply.

    Change will come someday. But I’m afraid something much bigger than the current contretemps will be needed to make it happen.

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