Robert Novak – Misplaced Praised

Syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, 78, was much praised at his death on August 18. Former colleagues and competitors lauded his “shoe-leather reporting”— said to rely on incessant interviewing and development of sources. Virtually no one acknowledged Novak’s animus for Israel and its American supporters, so strong it undid his reputed journalistic craftsmanship.

But Novak’s anti-Israel crusade was so egregious that his friend, former U.S. Rep. Jack (R-N.Y.), a leader in the conservative Republican movement that Novak often spoke for, took public exception. In a column that which appeared in April 27, 2006 edition of The Washington Times, among other places, Kemp wrote:

Bob’s claim [in an April 17 commentary] that Israel seeks to deprive Palestinian Christians of the water sources is a canard …. Contrary to the thrust of the Novak column, Israel’s Christian population has in fact prospered and quadrupled over the last half-century, in sharp contrast to the dwindling Christian communities in other countries in the Middle East.

Kemp was responding to the second of six Novak columns from February 16 through July 20 of that year that parroted the allegations of a few anti-Israel Palestinian Arab clergymen. Kemp wrote that he, like Novak, had seen Israel’s security barrier first hand but concluded “it’s absolutely necessary for the physical protection of everyone. Bob is just silent on these issues [Palestinian terrorism] …. In planning the route of the barrier, particularly in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where population density, religious and international interests intersect, Israel has demonstrated particular sensitivity to Christian concerns.”

The reality Kemp reported never penetrated Novak’s prejudice. Not only did he repeat anti-Israel allegations without verification, he also refused to deal seriously with contradictory facts and sources. Challenged, he stonewalled corrections requests.

Novak’s unhinged anti-Israelism was long-standing. In 1985, he blamed Israel for the hijacking of TWA flight 847 by Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon. In Novak’s view, Israel also was indirectly responsible for the murder of six Americans in El Salvador, the midair destruction of an Air India jet and attacks elsewhere. His animosity compelled him to link these events and the TWA hijacking to Israel’s exchange of 1,150 Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists and suspects for three Israeli prisoners of war. Novak typically minimized anti-Israel terrorism, but couldn’t resist indicting Israel for unrelated outrages because it was “soft on terrorists.”

He did not improve with age. Novak plumped for Republican Party outreach to the Nation of Islam’s antisemitic leader, Rev. Louis Farrakhan, blamed the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on U.S. support for Israel, and on Cable New Network called Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah a “freedom fighter.”

In a December 2002 column, Novak charged that a U.S.-led war with Iraq, if it came, would be “Sharon’s war,” after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Never mind that successive Israel governments, including Sharon’s, had identified Iran as the primary regional threat.

With sweeping superficiality, Novak claimed that “what is widely perceived as an indissoluble Bush-Sharon bond creates tension throughout Islam ….” Novak’s bilious view of the Jewish state and Washington-Jerusalem ties prevented him from recognizing that oppressive Arab regimes and Islamist movements used the U.S.-Israel relationship as either a distraction or a bogeyman. A U.N. study earlier that year highlighted real causes for stagnation and tension in the Arab world, including failure to modernize, democratize, and adopt free markets, but Novak didn’t follow up.

Among the howlers in Novak’s 2006 columns that pilloried Israel as anti-Christian:

* “Israeli policy” promises “further reduction in [Christian Arabs’] 1.7 percent share of Israel’s population.” In act, Christian Arabs comprised 2.1 percent of Israel’s population. Their numbers grew from 34,000 at Israel’s founding in 1948 to nearly 130,000 when Novak wrote, a 282 percent increase. Novak apparently confused Israel’s Christian Arab population with that of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The latter was 1.7 percent of the total, reduced from at least 8 percent just after World War II. Novak did not correct his error;

* Israel’s West Bank security barrier was “cutting to pieces the promised Palestinian state.” The barrier encompassed no more than eight percent of the West Bank, the rest retained territorial contiguity nearly identical to that of pre-1967 Israel. A West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian Arab state was proposed and discussed, not promised;

* The Gaza Strip is “one of the world’s most densely populated areas.” At the time Novak wrote, population density in the Strip was less than 9,000 people per square mile, comparable to that of Washington, D.C. and nowhere near one of the world’s most densely populated places;

* “After the Six-Day War of 1967 … the United States replaced the Soviet Union and France as Israel’s patron.” A Cold Warrior like Novak ought to have known better. France had been Israel’s main ally and arms supplier before 1967. The Soviet Union supplied Egypt and Syria. Moscow had provided, via Czechoslovakia, some weapons for Israel’s 1948 War of Independence but, its hopes for an Israeli satellite quickly dashed, became increasingly hostile;

* Israel had responded to “ineffectively fired rockets” launched by “undisciplined Palestinian militants” in the Gaza Strip with “deadly daily artillery barrages.” Novak wrote this when Israeli troops, in reply to nearly daily rocket fire, had killed about a dozen Arab terrorists, often by targeted helicopter or aircraft missile strikes. Two Palestinian non-combatants had been killed accidentally by Israeli artillery fire;

* “The Israeli settlements of Beit Arye and Ofarim were built on land taken from residents of [the Christian Arab village of] Aboud” in the West Bank. Beit Arye and Ofarim were built on state land, not village land.

* Israel’s West Bank security barrier “will … take over the aquifer that supplies one-fifth of the West Bank’s water supply.” The barrier’s route had no effect on the underground aquifer in the Samarian Mountains, which was covered by a separate agreement with the Palestinian Authority; and

* Presented Rev. Michael H. Sellers, an anti-Israeli Anglican priest, as “coordinator of Jerusalem’s Christian churches.” There were dozens of Christian denominations in Israel’s capital and hundreds of clergymen. Sellers’ letter to U.S. congressmen was signed by only three other clerics, all with long-standing ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization and/or Palestinian Arab nationalism. Novak ignored accounts of Muslim discrimination against Christian Arabs in the PA that were brought to his attention, including “Islamic mafia’ accused of persecuting Holy Land Christians,” Daily Telegraph (U.K.), Sept. 9, 2005.

Novak insinuated that supporters of a st rong U.S.-Israel relationship harmed America’s national interest. He ignored the relationship’s mutual benefits while helping propagate the canard of a neo-conservative (read: largely Jewish) cabal within the administration of President George W. Bush. In Novak-land, neo-cons allegedly manipulated the president, Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, not to mention Congress and much of the news media, to foment a U.S. war with Iraq to advance Israel’s interests.

Novak feverishly reached for any anti-Israel weapon, including those he might otherwise have shunned:

In “Olive Branch From Hamas” (Washington Post, April 16, 2007) Novak heard from a Hamas member of the short-lived, dysfunctional Fatah-Hamas unity government, “a plea for help from George W. Bush” to reach an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, if only the neo-cons would let the president pressure Israel.

In “Carter, unlike Bush, faces reality on West Bank issue” (Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 5, 2007), Novak admitted that “for the last 32 years, I had been a critic of [former President Jimmy] Carter — but not of his most recent and most attacked book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” No, when it came to falsely accusing Israel of an “illegal and oppressive occupation of the West Bank,” Novak readily embraced the ex-president’s error-riddled tract and the mendacious Jonathan Demme film, Man From Plains, that promoted it.

Novak, born into a second-generation American Jewish family, wrote that he drifted from Judaism early in life. By the time he converted to Catholicism in the 1990s, he already had been vilifying the Jewish state and its backers for decades. For whatever reason, Robert Novak’s writings about Israel represented not hard-nosed, let the facts fall where they might journalism but an obsessive-compulsive screed.

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