Columnists Fail ‘Breath-a-lyzer’ Test for Op-Eds on Obama’s Israel Trip

Another Thursday, another Washington Post commentary about Israel that reminds readers there are no recertification exams for newspaper columnists. First came “A spark in Israel” (March 21) by Post syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. It squinted at the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and saw instead a clash between the Jewish state and America. Seven days later “An appeal to Israel’s conscience” (March 28) featured pundit Fareed Zakaria scattering self-contradictory generalities in the wake of President Obama’s trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.


Zakaria says “both hard-line supporters of Israel and advocates of peace have clung to the notion of the Jewish state as deeply vulnerable.” He never mentions Iran’s reported nuclear weapons program or its threats to destroy Israel. He omits that Israel, inside the pre-1967 armistice lines, was four miles wide just west of Jerusalem, less than nine miles just north of Tel Aviv.


Zakaria asserts that the argument “Israel is surrounded by enemies” is out-of-date, the country not having to fear Syrian or Iraqi armies backed by the Soviet Union. He never mentions the tens of thousands of short- and medium-range rockets and missiles possessed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, those organizations’ genocidally anti-Jewish charters, or their past attacks on Israel and continued probing.


In addition to his bi-weekly Post column, Zakaria works as a TIME magazine editor-at-large and hosts a twice-weekly Cable News Network U.S. program and four-times-per-week CNN International show. In “An appeal to Israel’s conscience” he claims that “the wall separating Palestinians and Israelis and the ‘iron dome’ (he does not use the customary, capitalized Iron Dome) … have largely made Palestinian terrorism something … not actually experienced by most Israelis.” This even though the West Bank security barrier remains necessary because of continued Palestinian terrorist attempts or that Iron Dome protects only against short-range missiles. In reality, most Israelis have been targeted by terrorist attacks or know someone who has.


Zakaria writes that Israel’s strength has allowed the public to focus on social and economic issues instead of security. He doesn’t say that the domestic agenda of this year’s election resulted in no small measure from frustration by Israeli voters with a Palestinian leadership apparently not interested in negotiating a two-state solution.


The columnist points to the booming Israeli economy, especially compared to its Arab neighbors, and calls the Jewish state “the region’s dominant power.” He doesn’t mention that Israel’s economy and military have been comparatively stronger for decades but that has not enabled it to impose its will or reach genuine peace. On the doubtful future of Israel’s treaty with an Egypt lead by the Muslim Brotherhood or its peace with Jordan—heavily dependent on the increasingly beleaguered King Abdullah II—the pundit says nothing.


Zakaria observes that Arab leaders “all are focused on internal issues of power, legitimacy and survival” and thus can’t afford confrontations with Israel. He forgets that Israel-as-bogeyman often has been used as a prop by otherwise inefficient, unpopular Arab regimes.


The over-exposed Zakaria, briefly suspended in 2010 by TIME and CNN while they exonerated him of a plagiarism charge, attempts—as commentators must to appear worth heeding—to place Obama’s Middle East swing in a grand, new perspective. Having based his “analysis” on false or irrelevant generalizations, he fails.


Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr.’s commentary on President Obama’s trip (“A spark in Israel,” March 21), removes from Palestinian leadership any responsibility for failure to reach a “two-state solution.” Given multiple Palestinian rejection of just such an outcome, Dionne’s Op-Ed either results from or is meant to induce amnesia.


Dionne says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Netanyahu’s new government sends, at best, ambiguous signals on the two-state issue.” The columnist allows that “the [two-state] formula is tired, worn and frustrating.” But, he adds, “it is also inescapable. … the best solution for those who believe in a thriving, democratic Palestinian state. And two thriving states offer the only long-term hope for peace.”


For those ignorant of recent Israeli-Palestinian history, Dionne’s take might sound like innocuous boilerplate. But for anyone who remembers that Palestinian leadership rejected Israeli-U.S. offers of a West Bank and Gaza Strip state, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, in exchange for peace with Israel in 2000, 2001 and 2008, the columnist sounds behind the curve and clueless.


Since Dionne’s column erases this recent history, it does not need to acknowledge that not only have the Palestinian Arabs been the rejectionist party on the matter of a “two-state solution,” but that they’ve also said “no” without making any counter-offers. The first two times their reply was the terror war of the second intifada.  


There’s more on this fundamental point that the columnist either has forgotten or ignores. He writes that Obama’s was “a very consequential journey because it comes at a moment when hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are fading away.” In fact, those hopes were undermined, by Palestinian leadership and terrorism, immediately after being raised.


In 1993, to widespread optimism and subsequent Nobel Peace Prizes for Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat, the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo process outlined a five-year path to “final status negotiations.” Those talks were expected by many on all sides to lead either to Palestinian autonomy or sovereignty over much if not all the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem.


But within a few months after the initial agreements were signed, bombs began blowing up on Israeli buses, in restaurants and shopping malls. Anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish incitement did not end, nor were Palestinian terrorist organizations uprooted, as Arafat had pledged. Notwithstanding follow-up agreements and sporadic cooperation, chronic Palestinian violations crippled Oslo.


Dionne reminds readers of none of this. With the sort of attention deficit syndrome that makes journalists an easy target for comedians, the columnist’s memory takes him back only to Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech. For Dionne, this damaged U.S.-Israeli relations, and hence, prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, by implying that the Jewish state was rooted in reaction to the Holocaust, not in the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to the land. 


Palestinian contributions to, or obstacles in front of, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy are absent from Dionne’s brief retrospective. He claims that Israel’s resumption of settlement expansion on the West Bank after “a brief suspension …further complicat[ed] efforts to make it the heart of a new Palestinian state and arous[ed] anger among Palestinians.”


Dionne doesn’t say that the suspension was 10 months long, that Palestinian negotiators ignored it until the last month, or that Jewish communities on the West Bank—unlike Arab villages and towns in the disputed territories—did not expand in area but filled in open lots in existing locales. He seems to denigrate as political rather than existential that “Netanyahu also succeeded in moving the nuclear threat from Iran, rather than Israeli-Palestinian peace, to the center of the American-Israeli discussions.”


The columnist does not concede that Americans and Israelis can discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace all they want—and have been for much of the past 30 years—but if the divided Palestinian leadership (Dionne, like Zakaria, never mentions Hamas rule over the Gaza Strip) isn’t interested in direct, bilateral negotiations, a diplomatic solution will remain out of reach.


Dionne says that, “based on current demographics, [Palestinian Arabs] would eventually constitute a majority of any electorate” in a so-called “one-state solution.” Actually, current demographics, as American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, among others, has reported, show declining Muslim and increasing Jewish birthrates and therefore suggest otherwise regarding a “one-state” Arab majority. 


Dionne falls victim to the columnist’s occupational hazards of frequent deadlines, the necessity of appearing newsworthy, and the requirement of seeming well informed if not omniscient. Zakaria personifies them. In both cases, Post readers are poorly served. 


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