J.J. Goldberg

With All Due Respect, Can't My Critics Read?

By J.J. Goldberg


Those who follow me online have observed that I don’t usually respond to my critics. I confess: I have a little fan club that hangs out in the Comments section and on my Facebook page, cursing my ancestry and generally whooping it up, and they seem to be having so much fun that I hate to spoil it. Besides, as Rabbi Tarfon used to say, life’s too short and there’s too much to do (Pirkei Avot 2:20). Usually, I figure the facts will speak for themselves.

Lately, though, I’ve started noticing a weird phenomenon: critics attacking me for holding strange, dangerous or anti-Israel opinions when all I’ve done is quote mainstream Israeli defense doctrine or, on occasion, simply report major stories in the Israeli Hebrew press that haven’t made it into the American media.

On Friday afternoon, for example, Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted a snarky dismissal of my latest weekly column, headlined “Who Leaked Israel’s Top-Secret Briefing About Reoccupying Gaza?” My column notes that Israel’s attorney general has been asked formally to open a criminal investigation a security leak that the IDF considers extremely dangerous, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leading suspect. John’s observation:

Now, there are several possibilities here. Perhaps he only read the headline and blurb, or perhaps the first few paragraphs, and therefore didn’t realize, as my column carefully noted, that this is a news story that’s been all over the Israeli press, liberal (Haaretz) and conservative (Maariv) alike, and that Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has been formally asked to open a criminal investigation by Labor Party Knesset whip Eitan Cabel.

It’s possible that John followed up by reading the English Haaretz story, which pins the leak on one of Bibi’s opponents, but couldn’t read the Maariv story, which is in Hebrew and notes that virtually everyone else who’s examined the evidence thinks Bibi did it. Then again, to be fair, my weekly columns in the Forward Forum (as opposed to my blog posts) generally don’t contain links to source material. So he’d have to search online for the actual quotes, using the sourcing information that I did provide in print. To tell the truth, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t bother reading the column at all, but merely read the headline, decided it was nuts and decided to vent. This, then, raises the age-old question, Why Can’t Johnny Read?.

More inexplicable is the lengthy critique by John’s Commentary colleague, my friend (for real) Jonathan Tobin, of my previous week’s column, “What Happens in Israel Doesn’t Stay in Israel.” Jonathan wrote a blog post on August 20, titled “Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism,” in which he carefully deconstructs my argument that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians is partly responsible for the growing wave of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe.

I know he read the column he’s criticizing, because he quotes from it and takes on its arguments one by one. Here’s his most telling point:

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How Israel's Politics vs. Security Rift Aids Jihadis

By J.J. Goldberg

Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images

Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.

In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.

I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.

Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.

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How Israel Sold EU on Banning Half of Hezbollah

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Remains of Israeli victims of Hezbollah terror attack in Bulgaria are returned home, July 20, 2012

The European Union’s decision to slap the terrorist label on Hezbollah’s military wing, but not on its political wing, has been getting decidedly mixed reviews from Israel and the Jewish community. The American Jewish Committee said it “welcomes” the move as a “significant step forward in recognizing the true nature of Hezbollah,” even though AJC shares the U.S.-Canadian-Dutch view that Hezbollah is actually “a single organization.”

On the other hand, the Anti-Defamation League called it “a positive political statement, but a flawed counter-terrorism strategy,” since it “missed” the “high-value counter-terrorism target” of Hezbollah financing. B’nai Brith Canada went even further, saying the EU move gives “false legitimacy to Hezbollah’s supposedly non-violent wings,” which will “weaken international efforts to combat terror,” strengthen Iran and “cost more innocent lives.”

Yori Yanover wrote in the Jewish Press, citing a Reuters report, that the double-identity idea, “like most of the fun things coming out of the EU, is the brainchild of its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.”

Awkwardly enough, it now appears that differentiating the military and political wings for separate treatment was actually proposed to the EU by Israel’s negotiators. So reports Eli Bardenstein, the usually well-informed diplomatic correspondent of the right-leaning Israeli daily Maariv, in a detailed backgrounder (in Hebrew) on the Israeli campaign to secure the European ban. Launched by then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the year-long campaign was the work of a task force that was led by the Foreign Ministry and included Israel’s National Security Council and main intelligence agencies. The split-identity proposal, Bardenstein writes, was devised as a way to ease France’s fears of losing influence in Lebanon’s byzantine politics, which it feared would strengthen Hezbollah and reinforce Syria’s Assad regime.

The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace published an English-language summary (PDF) of Bardenstein’s analysis. Here are the main points:

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In Syria, 2 Clashing Goals: End Killing or Stop Iran

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Syrian rebels guard Islamist rally, Aleppo, March 2013

Now that the White House has officially acknowledged the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the question is no longer whether we get involved in the Syrian civil war, but how. This represents a victory for the smallish, outspoken group of liberal interventionists who have been arguing for an American military role, while trying to shake off the stigma of their de facto alliance with neoconservatives a decade ago in supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq. President Obama’s nomination last week of Susan Rice as National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations seemed to signal that we’d be moving in this direction, given their records as liberal interventionists, but nobody expected it to happen so fast.

Liberal interventionists have been insisting for months that, as The New York Times’ Bill Keller and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued recently, memories of Iraq shouldn’t deter America from acting in Syria, because they’re not the same thing. The scale of humanitarian disaster in Syria is genuine, immediate and overwhelming. On the contrary, the proper precedents are the shameful tragedies of our delayed intervention in Bosnia, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier maintains, and our abject failure to act in Rwanda, as Princeton University political scientist (and former Obama State Department aide) Anne-Marie Slaughter forcefully insists. Indeed, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes that the lesson for Syria from the Bosnia experience is what went right after we did intervene.

Conservative interventionists like Elliott Abrams and, well, a host of others have been calling for months for action in Syria as a way to weaken Iran and Hezbollah. Hebrew University Middle East scholar [Moshe Maoz], perhaps Israel’s most respected Syria watcher — and an outspoken dove on the Palestinian issue—makes both arguments in a new op-ed essay in Haaretz: that the humanitarian disaster and the growing prospect of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran victory in the civil war should stir Washington and NATO to a firm, Bosnia-style intervention. Israel has everything to gain from such an intervention, he writes, and while it can’t be part of the action, it can and “must use its good ties with the U.S. to persuade it to give strategic military support to the rebels in Syria.” As for fears that a rebel victory would install a jihadist or Al Qaeda-style regime in Damascus, he writes:

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Reuters: Spreading Unrest in Arab World Bodes Ill for Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

This is the first bit or reporting I’ve seen on the strategic implications for Israel of all the popular ferment in the Middle East. By Crispian Balmer of Reuters Jerusalem bureau, Analysis: Bad neighborhood risks getting worse for Israel:

Political turmoil in Lebanon has strengthened Israel’s Iranian-backed enemy Hezbollah, while a leak of hundreds of sensitive documents has dented the leadership of its frustrated peace partner, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Attention has now swung down to the south, where its longest-standing Arab ally, Egypt, has been jolted by nationwide anti-government protests.

While the upheaval in Lebanon has caused concern, the fear of serious strife in Egypt has set alarm bells ringing.

The piece quotes former Barak diplomatic aide Gidi Grinstein, now head of the Reut Institute, warning that the prospect of regime change in Egypt is the most serious strategic threat. Pundits are speaking of an emerging democratic-populist-Muslim Brotherhood coalition challenging Mubarak in a coherent way.

Balmer continues:

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Why the Lebanese Border Is Heating Up. Hint: It's Not About Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

Progressive Zionists rightly insist on the right to declare one’s love for Israel and still point out when Israel is in the wrong and the other side has a legitimate case. The trouble is that one neglects to take note from time to time (to time to time to time, actually) when Israel is in the right and the other side is ridiculously, outrageously in the wrong.

Case in point: the incident on the Israeli-Lebanese border earlier this week, when Lebanese Army soldiers shot and killed an Israel lieutenant colonel who was overseeing maintenance work on the border fence that Israel maintains on the Israeli side of of the border. Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, trained a sharp eye on Western media coverage of the incident. Two points stand out in relief: first, the inherent vulnerability of the standard he-said/she-said style of objective reporting in the face of systematic mendacity; and second, the tendency in Middle East moments of doubt (which is most moments) to assume that Israel is the bad guy because–well, just because.

Here’s Barry (the embedded links are his):

Today’s Example of Ridiculous Media Bias Against Israel

Along Israel’s border with Lebanon, east of Metulla, some bushes were pushing in on the border fence. The fence is set in slightly from the border precisely so that Israeli soldiers can work on it. The IDF called UNIFIL and informed the UN that this work was going to be done today so that they could tell the Lebanese army that there was no aggression going on but just routine maintenance. Soldiers from UNIFIL came to observe and can be seen standing next to Israeli soldiers in the photos. Photographers were also standing by to film the operation.

But Lebanese soldiers opened fire on the Israelis who were working and in no way acting aggressively. The fact that journalists were standing next to the Lebanese soldiers shows that they knew Israel was going to do this maintenance and were observing. After the Israeli soldiers were ambushed, they returned fire. One Israeli officer was killed, another seriously wounded; three Lebanese soldiers, and a Lebanese (?) journalist were killed.

So how did Reuters and Yahoo report this? By saying that Israeli soldiers had crossed into Lebanon and been fired on, thus implying the Lebanese army was acting in self-defense! Other news agencies merely reported: Israel says the soldiers were inside Israel; Lebanon says they were on Lebanese territory.

The biggest thing that’s missing in most coverage is the background to the incident.

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