Saturday, January 31, 2009

Increasing Even Handedness in the Middle East - Glenn Greenwald, January 30, 2009 - It's now rather clear that the debate in the U.S. over Israel and the Middle East is becoming increasingly more balanced and open, and there are even some very preliminary though encouraging signs that the Obama administration will take a more even-handed approach. As I wrote about the other day, the truly excellent report by 60 Minutes' Bob Simon, focusing on the destructive impact of expanding West Bank settlements, was a startling departure from the rules governing what normally would be aired in such venues with regard to Israel.

As one would expect, there were angry reactions and recriminations aimed at Simon and 60 Minutes from the same groups that, for years, have been stigmatizing even-handed discussions of Israel as illegitimate, or worse. But now, there is an important counter-weight to those efforts: J Street, which is well on its way to ending the monopoly that right-wing groups have long wielded in the U.S. when it comes to purporting to speak for Americans Jews and defining the allegedly "pro-Israel" position. J Street has launched a project praising the Simon/60 Minutes report, and has organized a letter-writing campaign to CBS in support of that segment, to balance the campaigns of criticisms from the right-wing "pro-Israel" groups. You can read about J Street's position here, and participate in their letter-writing campaign to CBS here (the full, lengthier and more detailed statement sent by J Street via email is here).

Obama's decision to name George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy (as opposed to, say, the hopelessly biased Dennis Ross) may turn out to be one of the most significant steps he will take. Consider the reaction that decision has generated.

On PBS's News Hour this week, Jimmy Carter (who, with his success at forging an Israel-Egypt peace agreement, probably did more for Israel's security than any foreign leader in the last century) said that Obama's "choice of an envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is absolutely superb, and it shows that he's going to take a more balanced position between the Israelis and their neighbors." J Street's Executive Director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, "enthusiastically" praised the selection of Mitchell, saying that it "signals the President's serious intention to inject new thinking and fresh perspectives into America's efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Even Noam Chomsky, while questioning Obama's commitment to changing American policy in the region, said that "George Mitchell is, of the various appointments that have been made, the most decent, let's say. He has a pretty decent record."

Meanwhile, advocates like Abe Foxman are actually criticizing Obama for Mitchell's appointment on the revealing ground that Mitchell is too "even-handed" -- an absurd criticism that, unsurprisingly, is defended by people like The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, in a piece entitled "The Case Against Even-Handedness." Notably, AIPAC has said nothing regarding their position on Mitchell's appointment.

Only time will tell whether the appointment of Mitchell presages real change in U.S. behavior, but whatever else is true, the presidential appointment of a Middle East envoy with a real history of even-handedness, and who therefore prompts praise from the likes of Jimmy Carter, J Street and Noam Chomsky, and anger from the ADL and The New Republic, is a significant and encouraging departure from the suffocatingly one-sided approach that has been so destructive for both the U.S. and Israel.

Signaling a similar sea change was the rather bitter dispute that broke out yesterday on a Davos panel featuring, among others, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres. The leaders of the two traditionally close nations argued angrily over the Israeli attack on Gaza, with Erdogan accusing Peres of shrillness because he has a "guilty conscience," and then storming out after accusing the panel's moderator, The Washington Post's David Ignatius, of extreme bias in according Peres far more time to speak than the other panelists (Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary general), all of whom were critical of the Israeli attack on Gaza. For his confrontation with Peres over Gaza, Erdogan arrived in Turkey yesterday to a "hero's welcome."....

Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional law and civil rights litigator who blogs at

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