Ron Radosh

What The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg Gets Wrong about Netanyahu's Impact in America and Israel

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and now a columnist for Bloomberg News as well is one of the most highly acclaimed reporters covering the Middle East. A former IDF soldier and a man with years of experience writing about the region, no one comes closer than him to providing solid material when he writes lengthy pieces about the conflict.

But when he editorializes and comments, he can be as off-base as anyone else, despite his own decades of writing and reporting. Like many liberals, Goldberg sees the settlements and the expansion of them by religious zealots as the main impediment to peace in the region, not Palestinian intransigence about any willingness to recognize a Jewish state anywhere in Palestine.  Take this column, in which Goldberg writes the following:

Their greatest achievement, though, is in the interconnected realms of ideology and propaganda. The settlement movement, its supporters, and its apologists (in Israel and in America) have successfully conflated support for their movement with support for Israel and for Zionism itself. They have created a reality in which criticism of the settlement movement has come to equal criticism of Israel. You see this at the AIPAC convention, where no speaker dared suggest that the settlements are, in fact, the vanguard of Israel’s dissolution, rather than the vanguard of Zionism.

Does Goldberg really believe that if there were no settlements, and if they were suddenly abandoned, that Mahmoud Abbas would suddenly recognize Israel and be ready to make peace? He knows well that since 1948 and Israel’s creation, the Arab nations and the Palestinian leadership — then commanded by the Nazi supporter the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem — have vowed never to accept any Jewish state anywhere in Palestine. To them, all of Israel was an illegal settlement by colonialist-imperialist occupiers.

Has Goldberg read any of the penetrating columns by Sol Stern, who regularly has shown how Israel has offered to make peace, only to find Palestinian rejection facing them? (Stern’s most recent one can be read here.) As Stern writes, it is not the settlers who are the impediment to peace, but the false “Nakba narrative” propounded by the PA leaders, especially Abbas. Stern points out: “No one living under Palestinian rule dares publicly question this lie. No historian dares offer his people a balanced account of the 1948 war, of who attacked whom, and of the reasons for the flight of the refugees. As long as this remains the case, the ‘right of return,’ far more than any question of borders, will remain the principal roadblock to successful peace negotiations.”

Goldberg argues, however, that what he calls his “centrist” position:

[Is] that the settlements should be fought as if there was no such thing as anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism should be fought as if there were no such thing as the settlements. This, I think, reflects the centrist position. A centrist on the question of Israel believes that the settlements represent a corruption of Jewish ideals, but that Israel remains the physical manifestation of a righteous cause.

Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that in fact many smaller settlements outside of what will be a secure Israel after a two-state solution will in fact cease to exist, and the larger ones in areas everyone knows will be assigned to Israel proper, the settlement issue will fall by the wayside.

In another blog post, Goldberg argues that Netanyahu’s comments to the president at the White House meeting were a disaster, and he writes: “I watched the Prime Minister of Israel publicly lecture the President of the United States on Jewish history with a mixture of shock, amusement and bewilderment.” He is perplexed because he says that the president “the day before, gave Netanyahu two enormous gifts — a denunciation of the radical Islamist terror group Hamas, and a promise to fight unilateral Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations recognition as an independent state.”

Others, as we know, have pointed out that the president’s denunciation of Hamas was two-faced, since he did not actually say that negotiations with them should not take place. Goldberg then writes the following about what he terms was Netanyahu’s “pedantic behavior”:

President Obama actually does understand Jewish history: he understands it well enough to know that the permanent occupation of the West Bank would be an historical anomaly;
2) Even if Obama didn’t understand Jewish history, it is still off-putting for many Americans to watch their president being lectured by a foreign leader in his own house;
3) The Prime Minister doesn’t seem to understand what President Obama is trying to tell him: That Israel cannot maintain the occupation of the West Bank without becoming a pariah state (previous LIkud-bred prime ministers, namely Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, both understood this);
4) The Prime Minister desperately needs President Obama to defend Israel in the United Nations, and even more crucially, to confront Iran’s nuclear program, which poses an existential threat to the Jewish state; angering him constantly doesn’t seem to be an effective way to marshal the President’s support;
5) Based on the mail I’ve been receiving, and conversations I’ve been having with Jewish leaders of various ideological persuasions, there is a great worry that Netanyahu, through his behavior even more than his policies, is alienating other of Israel’s friends, needlessly.

Yes, he writes, Netanyahu got standing ovations at AIPAC and before Congress. But Goldberg warns that these should not confuse us. AIPAC, he thinks, represents only a minority of American Jews, especially younger ones. (The implication is that J Street, despite its much lower numbers and lesser impact, does represent American Jews — which is why they are featuring Goldberg’s comments on their website.) But he predicted, as we know incorrectly, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a slightly more tepid reaction to Netanyahu among many Democrats. Make no mistake: Support for Israel (and for the Netanyahu government in particular) is slowly waning among Democrats.” (my emphasis.)

Since Goldberg wrote those words, more and more defections from the president have taken place among top Democrats. Ed Koch wrote on his weekly blog that he will not vote for Obama in 2012, despite his agreement with the president’s domestic policies. Front page stories in all the major American newspapers led with the news of Democratic endorsement of Netanyahu’s main points, and the wealthy Jewish Democrat and financier of Obama’s 2008 campaign, Haim Saban, announced he would not contribute to the  2012 campaign because of Obama’s views on Israel.

Yet Goldberg claims that Netanyahu, “through his pedantic and pinched behavior, [is]helping to weaken Israel’s standing among Democrats.”

Yes, today Goldberg finally acknowledges, quoting author  Ya’acov Lozowick, that “Netanyahu broke substantial new ground in his speech. No Israeli prime minster before Ehud Barak spoke openly about Israel recognizing Palestinian sovereignty.” I assume that by printing Lozowick’s comments, he agrees with him. And Lozowick adds that “the assumption all over Israel’s media today is that he enjoys broad support in the Israeli electorate for his positions.”

So why, then, is it so surprising that Netanyahu should also not find broad support from Americans and Democrats as well? Could it be that Goldberg, because of his hostility to the Likud, judged Netanyahu’s effect on his trip here prematurely?

One answer comes from Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. He tells the story of how he took his Israeli au pair with him to hear Netanyahu both at AIPAC and before Congress. The 21 year old Inna Graziel, he writes, is “a moderate who was suspicious of the uncompromising Netanyahu,” yet, upon hearing the prime minister speak, his words “turned her into a supporter.” Milbank, a liberal who does not like Netanyahu or Likud, complains that “I saw through her eyes how badly Obama bungled his Middle East speech. He unwittingly strengthened Israeli hawks such as Netanyahu and made the already remote prospect of peace that much more distant.”

So unlike Goldberg, Milbank sees that Obama’s speech and  arguments were counter-productive, and made even moderates into fervent Netanyhau supporters. Like Goldberg, the au pair Graziel opposes settlements, and considers herself a backer of Livni and Kadima. That is, until now. After hearing Obama’s comments on the 1967 borders, she “was stunned. ‘Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, the 1967 lines? It’s crazy,” she said. “It’s impossible.’ Holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart, she added, ‘They’ll be this close to Tel Aviv.’ The phrase about ‘agreed swaps’ changed nothing. To Inna’s ears, Obama had issued an existential threat to Israel, and it put her in an unfamiliar place: in lockstep with Bibi. When he told Obama in the Oval Office that the 1967 lines were ‘indefensible,’ Inna celebrated. ‘Now, he’s our guy,’ she said. ‘He’s the voice of Israel.’”

Precisely: The very Oval Office comments made by Netanyahu that so upset Jeffrey Goldberg won applause from the kind of moderate Israeli whose politics Goldberg approves of, and changed her into a Netanyahu supporter. What made her change was, Milbank says, “Netanyahu’s firm rejection of Obama’s frightening proposal. ‘It’s a big thing to say ‘no’ to the president of the United States,’  she said. If there were an election now, she said, ‘I would vote for Bibi.’”

So a final question for Jeffrey Goldberg. Have you, like the young Ms. Graziel, reconsidered your own earlier assessments? Don’t you think that you should? We await your response.