Post-Gaza Sea Change
Israel Policy Forum
January 30, 2009 - 12:00am
Israel is just over a week away from elections so it is no surprise that its people are not focusing on whether or not the Gaza war was worth the price. Of course, the price was mostly paid by Gazans rather than by Israelis. It is infinitely easier for Israelis to forget about it, and move on, than for Palestinians.
In that sense, Israel was the clear "winner" while Gaza, still burying its dead, was the loser. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Hamas lost—a critical distinction. The people of Gaza are not Hamas. They are just people; many of the dead were children. Hamas, however, is surviving.
In one area, Israel clearly lost: public opinion. In the past, a distinction could be made between how America reacted to a Middle Eastern war and how the rest of the world did. Judging from media coverage, this time there was little difference between America and everywhere else.
That was not the case at the start. The American media took the Israeli side and the Europeans lined up behind the Palestinians. But as the war went on and Palestinian casualties mounted, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other major dailies began covering the war little differently than the Independent, the Guardian, or Le Monde.
The focus was on the humanitarian disaster, not on who was or wasn't responsible for the war. The blogosphere—now as influential as the mainstream media—was almost uniformly opposed to Israel's position. The prevalent view there was that Israel's blockade of Gaza was no less a casus belli than the Kassam rockets.
As for the television networks, only Fox consistently supported Israel's position. The others focused on the suffering of Gaza's people. This was remarkable because Israel had banned the media from covering the story inside Gaza. But the media made do—with Al Jazeera-English often setting the pace—and the heart-rending stories of human suffering came out.
The impact on public opinion has been striking. Beside from within the more conservative segment of the pro-Israel community, there was little show of support for this war. In New York, a city where crowds of 250,000 have come out for "solidarity" rallies in the past, only 8,000 came to Manhattan for a community demonstration on a sunny Sunday. The same skepticism about the war was true elsewhere and Israelis noticed the break with past patterns.
So did the media. The current issue of Newsweek features a story called: "Israel Has Fewer Friends than Ever, Even in America."
"Israel has never been more isolated," it reports. It has "just one key friend. Could Obama, who promised the Muslim world 'a new way forward' in his Inaugural Address, loosen the bond? A recent Pew poll shows 55 percent of U.S. Republicans, but only 45 percent of Democrats, approve of Israel's actions in Gaza. Given that Democrats now rule, Israel may need to worry more about the mood on Main Street than on the Arab Street."
Then came 60 Minutes. Last Sunday, the highest rated program in the United States ran a scathing Bob Simon segment on the occupation. One part stood out. Simon and his crew filmed a private home in Nablus, which the Israeli army seized so that its soldiers could use the upper floor as a lookout post.
The family who lives in the house was relegated to the bottom floor, while soldiers took their beds. When the kids came home from school, they found that soldiers had barred the door closed. Apparently, such house seizures happen often and Palestinians have no one to whom to protest. And this is not Gaza but the West Bank, governed by Israel's friend, Mahmoud Abbas.
The segment also featured prominent settler activist, Daniella Weiss, pledging that never again will any settlement be dismantled by the IDF. If the Israeli government decides to evacuate the settlers in the context of a peace treaty, the settler movement's rabbis will urge the soldiers to disobey their orders. She is confident that they would. She picked up a piece of sod and made clear that, for her, neither the State of Israel, nor its government, matters much. All that matters is God's promise of the land to the Jews.
Weiss, an eloquent and influential advocate of the settlers' position, explained the rationale that motivates her and the settlement movement: obstructing peace. "I think that settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal and this is the reality." There you have it.
Simon's conclusion: "Demographers predict that, within ten years, Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Without a separate Palestinian state, the Israelis would have three options. They could try ethnic cleansing, drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank. They could give Palestinians the vote. That would be the democratic option, but it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Or they could try apartheid, have the minority Israelis rule the majority Palestinians. But apartheid regimes don't have a very long life."
Pretty incredible television, at least for the United States (not so in Israel where these issues are freely discussed). But this type of analysis is becoming more and more common. Just check out Jon Stewart's Daily Show, on which the brilliant and hugely influential Jewish comedian repeatedly and consistently takes on the safe and conventional wisdom about the Middle East.
Some pro-Israel activists are preparing for intensified war against this phenomenon. They have long been in the business of shooting the messenger, believing that it is not the occupation that is the problem but the reporters who write about it. But the messenger has suddenly discovered that he can take a bullet.
Supporters of the status quo had better get used to it. The American approach to the Middle East is changing and the shift in the media is just one sign of it. Most important of all, America has changed.
Could anyone have imagined in the first years following 9/11 that the very next President of the United States would be an African American named Barack Hussein Obama, who makes a point of addressing Muslims in his inaugural address and telling Al Arabiya about his Muslim relatives? The Americans who voted him into office are not going to reflexively stand in opposition to Palestinian or Muslim aspirations based on ethnic bias or knee-jerk attitudes.
Obama's America is going to be even-handed in the Middle East not only because that is what Obama is, but because it is what most Americans today expect and want. Younger people, in particular, cannot even imagine that anyone would suggest that even-handedness is bad. To them, that is like saying that the best referee is one who bends the rules to favor one team.
It is offensive to assume that even-handedness is bad for Israel. To decry even-handedness as intrinsically anti-Israel is to argue that any fair observer will choose the anti-Israel position. That is as perverse as it is wrong. And it is insulting to recommend that the United States be anything but an honest broker in the Middle East.
I do not expect that the conservative pro-Israel activists will change their ("the whole world is anti-Semitic") tune. It is the only one they know.
I have more faith in Israel. It seems to grasp what Obama's election signifies. Every major front page in Israel ran Obama's interview with Al Arabiya, his first with any foreign media since his inauguration. Israelis heard him endorse the Saudi plan and state that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to our problems in the region. They recognize a clean break with the past when they see it. And they are beginning to realize that Obama is a friend, even if he does not mouth simple-minded rhetoric about the Middle East and what will fix it.
Even Bibi Netanyahu is eager to convey that he gets Obama. He has moderated his tone since Obama's election and has made it clear that the last thing he wants is a difficult relationship with America's most popular president in a generation.
I would expect that, no matter who is elected prime minister, he or she will get along with our new President. They know that George W. Bush, whose "support" for Israel was ultimately destructive, is gone. It's a new day and, for Israel, that will mean dialing down the rhetoric. Far more significantly, it means changing policies—starting with an end to the settlement enterprise.
That is what Israel's friends here want—an end to the occupation and the full implementation of the two-state solution now, before it is too late. As for the heroic champions of the status quo—the ones who are always warning Presidents and Congress that any deviation from their tired and predictable "line" will mean political trouble—they are part of the past. They may not know it yet. But they will soon enough. Those of us who care about Israel's security now have an administration—specifically a President and Secretary of State—who share our view that the occupation is a curse.
Obama promised change and he is already delivering.