Commitments Not Reaffirmed

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-2-12

Are there any progressives out there sufficiently committed to the peace process and the two-state solution to criticize Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly? Abbas’s address once again proved his “moderation” to be a masquerade, as he plunged Palestinians and Israelis into round after round of the delegitimization derby, piling on insults and libels, making it difficult for any self-respecting Israeli government to respond constructively. And the fact that after more than 1,600 words of denunciations and demonization, he claimed to “reaffirm, without hesitation,” his and his people’s commitment to “peace and international legitimacy,” suggested that he was insulting the international community’s intelligence, not just the Israeli “occupier.”

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)
 

Before Abbas’s false call for peace, he warned of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine.” He used the code words his mentor Yasser Arafat first injected into the Israeli-Palestinian conversation: “racist,” “discriminatory,” “ethnic cleansing,” “siege,” “apartheid,” “terrorism,” “colonial,” etc. etc. Most of these words were purposely imported into the language about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s to turn discussion of the conflict from its local particulars to universal condemnations, as a way of linking the Palestinians with all Third World victims of Western powers. Bringing new meaning to the word chutzpah, Abbas then complained about “an Israeli political discourse that does not hesitate to brandish aggressive, extremist positions, which in many aspects and its practical application on the ground is inciting religious conflict.”

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech began with an affirmation of Jewish history not a negation of the Palestinians. He segued into his call for “a durable peace with the Palestinians” by talking about a point of common civility: how Israeli doctors treated Palestinian Arabs in Israelis hospitals. Netanyahu did criticize Abbas’s rant by saying: “We won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the U.N.,” but he limited his denunciations of the Palestinian Authority to two sentences, admittedly spending more time than that attacking Iran and Islamism.

This is not to say that Abbas’s speech had no merit and that Netanyahu’s speech was unassailable. It was heartbreaking to hear Abbas’s account of what he called “at least 535 attacks perpetrated” against Palestinians by Israeli settlers “since the beginning of this year.” The Israeli government must have zero tolerance for such criminal behavior, which is legally and morally wrong. At the same time, Netanyahu’s crude cartoon illustrating the Iranian bomb threat was undignified and unhelpful. Domestic critics are mocking Netanyahu’s address as “the Looney Tunes speech”—and such criticism is deserved.

But on the Palestinian issue, one cannot equate the Israeli Prime Minister’s constructive approach with the Palestinian Authority President’s rhetorical howitzers. Of course, that is precisely what the New York Times and others did. Generating the usual fog of moral equivalence, the Times editorial “Talking at Cross Purposes,” acknowledged Abbas’s “exceptionally sharp rhetoric” while excusing it, and noted Netanyahu’s “reference to wanting peace with the Palestinians” while dismissing it as “brief” and insincere.

For peace to be achieved—in fact, for any real progress to occur—all actors in this enduring drama will have to break out of their assigned roles. Palestinians will have to stop playing the victim and demonizing Israel. And those observers supposedly devoted to peace will have to start criticizing, cajoling, inspiring, and reassuring both sides, showing a willingness to condemn Palestinian actions when warranted and even grant compliments to Israel, if warranted.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Debate Prep 2012: For Voters and Candidates

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-2-12

As holiday-weary Israelis wonder whether they will ever be productive again, Americans are preparing to watch their presidential candidates sweat.  Just as Tishrei is holiday-saturation month for Jews, every four years October is debate month in American presidential politics. Tonight, October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado.  On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 – two weeks before Election Day – Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates – which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges – are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama.  Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge – and the largest last minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative Tarot Card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney.  In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated.  Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.”  This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise – and plaintively claim he was strong – or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction.  Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes.  Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room.  Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting.   In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor.  At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.”  In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.
While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.
It is too easy just to blame the press – although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament:  image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.
This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. How lucky Israelis are that in the Jewish state politics is substantive, straightforward, serious, and scrupulous….
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents:  George Washington to Barack Obama,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.