When U.S. President Barack Obama wants the Jewish community to sit up and listen to what he thinks about Israel and the Middle East, he regularly does two things. One is to call in Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for Bloomberg View and The Atlantic, to interview him on the subject. The second is to let The New York Times know what's fit to print in their news stories and especially their op-eds and editorials about the subject. Of course, the White House need not issue directives to writers or editors at The Times, though for all I know it might. An interview with Jeffrey Goldberg will convey the message and do the trick. So too will comments the president makes in public. One thing you will never find is any space between Barack Obama's stated views on Israel and those of the staff of The New York Times opinion pages in the days and weeks that follow.
Last week, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was flying to the United States to meet with Obama, and speak at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention, the White House invited Goldberg back in to set the stage before Netanyahu might seize it from him. The text of the conversation was released as the AIPAC conference was starting up.
Even Goldberg, a fan of the president, and a journalist more than happy to see and present the president in the best light as a true friend of Israel (one who knows better than Israel's elected leaders and the Israeli voters what is really best for them), seemed to think the president stepped over the line this time.
"I took it to be a little bit of a veiled threat, to be honest," Goldberg said. "It's almost up there with, you know, nice little Jewish state you got there, I'd hate to see something happen to it."
As always, the president was unhappy that Israel had built new housing units in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem in the prior year, though none of this was prohibited under any existing international agreement, any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, or even any understanding with the United States. The count of new housing units goes up one year, down the next, and always the refrain is the same -- they are an obstacle to peace. In fact, they are regularly described by self-proclaimed true friends of Israel as the crucial obstacle to peace.
Of course, Israel removed all 9,000 Israelis living in the Gaza Strip and all Israeli forces from the area, without seemingly removing any obstacles to peace between Hamas and Israel or for that matter, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
The president also spoke of demographic realities that presumably were becoming less favorable to Israel over time. However, a sharply rising Israeli birth rate, a rapidly declining Arab birth rate in Israel as well as in Judea and Samaria, and the use of more accurate population estimates for the Palestinian population, have enabled convincing arguments to be made that Israel would be able to sustain a significant Jewish majority (close to two-thirds) even if Arabs in Judea and Samaria were given citizenship at some point.
The president never speaks of obstacles to peace that are provided by Israel's supposed partner for peace -- the Palestinian Authority. In fact, the president pointed out to Goldberg that Israel did not want to miss the chance to negotiate a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas, the quintessential moderate Arab leader in the eyes of all those in the conventional-wisdom camp. The government of the moderate Abbas was of course still demanding a right of return for 5 million descendants of fewer than 50,000 living refugees from the 1948 war, certainly not a deal killer (nor an obstacle to peace). Abbas and his emissaries were absolute in their rejection of the demand by Israel for the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (while demanding a Judenrein Palestinian state next door). This too was not an obstacle. The fact that the PA was working with every nongovernmental organization it could find in Europe and elsewhere who would make trouble for or make demands of Israel, encouraging the worldwide boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and constantly inciting its own population while honoring murderers of Jews, were also not obstacles that anyone need be concerned with -- not Obama certainly. And of course, if Obama is not concerned, why should Israel be, since Obama knows best?
The president told Goldberg that it is becoming more difficult to defend Israel at the U.N. and with foreign leaders. Goldberg says it is an open question whether Obama has in fact become unwilling anymore to do so.
"It was, look, I want to help you, but you're not helping me help you, and, therefore, there's only so much political capital I'm going to go spend in the U.N., with the EU, with the Arab League, on your behalf," Goldberg said. "I think it was all couched very carefully but it's there and certainly the government in Israel feels like it's there."
When asked to describe the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Goldberg quipped, "Oh, it's just filled with joy, very clearly."
Despite the interview's release, the talks between Obama and Netanyahu were nonetheless a bit less frosty than at times in the past five years. But that may be because Netanyahu has learned to ignore the White House hectoring and instead make his and Israel's case in every public setting in America, to people who have an open mind and are, unlike the president or the New York Times editors and staff, supportive of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, with secure borders and with the Iranian nuclear threat removed.
The New York Times editorial pages this week were an indication of how complete is the subservient loyalty of Times editors to the great leader's wishes. In an editorial titled "Israel's Choice" appeared this gem describing Secretary of State John Kerry's nonstop effort to get both sides to agree to certain framework principles for continued negotiations:
"But there are fears that the principles might tilt toward Israel, which would mean the final negotiations simply won't get off the ground."
In other words, The Times (meaning Obama) is afraid that the secretary of state has been listening too much to Israel, and that is a problem. While Kerry pursues his shuttle diplomacy, the president golfs, attends fundraisers, and stays tuned to ESPN Sports Center and then undermines his own secretary's efforts, presumably to set the stage for blaming Israel if talks collapse.
Nothing in the Times editorial suggests that leaning to accept the Palestinian position would be an unacceptable tilt. In fact, The Times argues that the Palestinian position on Jerusalem is more reasonable than the Kerry framework that someone leaked to The Times. So too, The Times is unhappy with Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state, which would prejudice the Palestinians demand for a right of return for 5 million non-refugees to Israel.
The Times position on refugees was spelled out in a debate conducted online between Daniel Gordis and Lara Friedman of American this week. The introduction to the debate again provides all the context one needs for how The Times approaches the current conflict:
"Israel's expansion of settlements in the occupied territories has been an obstacle to the two-state solution, considered the most likely hope for peace with the Palestinians.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has called for worldwide disassociation with Israel to end the occupation. Even many supporters of the two-state solution, though, condemn the movement because it attacks Israel itself and supports the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel that were theirs before its creation.
But what about a boycott of the territories, and all activity within them, to end the occupation? Would that be in the best interest of Israel and the most likely path to peace?"
One could spend many words deconstructing this purported neutral introduction to the debate, but two items stand out. The Times believes that expansion of settlements has been an obstacle to the two-state solution. Case closed on that one. And then the latest addition to The Times "down the middle" approach: The Palestinian refugees are only trying to return to homes that were theirs before the creation of Israel. When pressed on this issue of refugees versus descendants, the Times editor who wrote the introductory note, Nicholas Fox, explained that he was only following the accepted international definition of refugees:
"I believe that our reference to refugees is in line with definition of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The agency's website refers to its work with 'four generations of Palestine refugees, defined as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration. ... Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.'"
Assume that one accepts this "follow the UNWRA" script. How exactly are these 5 million people who are entitled to "register" as refugees, returning to homes in Israel that were theirs before the creation of Israel? How indeed, since they were not alive at the time!
One certainly does not want to be seen as unduly critical of a newspaper that promises to present "all the news that's fit to print," but is The Times, like Obama, maybe, just possibly, tilting towards the Palestinians?