To NYT Columnist Nicholas Kristof / David Harris

October 10, 2011
You recently wrote a column in The New York Times entitled “Is Israel Its Own Worst Enemy?”

Asserting that yours is “an act of friendship,” you unleashed a torrent of criticism against Israel, claiming, among other angry accusations, that the Jewish state is “endangered most by its leaders and maximalist stance.”

I beg to differ. And no, I don't do so as an opponent of a two-state agreement or a fan of settlements throughout the West Bank. I happen to be neither.

While I've never for a moment argued that Israel should be walled off from critical scrutiny, I simply think you've spun a narrative which is highly selective in its purported analysis.

Stripped to its bare minimum, you believe that peace with the Palestinians would be just around the corner if only Israel had enlightened leadership today.

Your main claim is that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu prefers settlements – a “national suicide policy” – to peace.

Is that so?

Yes, it's true another step toward building within Gilo, a well-developed Jerusalem neighborhood, was just taken and the timing was unhelpful.

But, in your column, you noted: “Every negotiator knows the framework of a peace agreement.” Those negotiators all understand that Gilo will remain part of Israel in any conceivable deal.

No, I'm not one of those you disparage as believing that “Jerusalem must all belong to Israel in any peace deal.” But I do know that, in any final agreement, Jerusalem will necessarily look different from it did on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, taking into account historical and demographic realities.

But what's most striking is that you insulate the Palestinian Authority (PA) from any responsibility for the current impasse.

While going after Israel with a two-by-four, and grotesquely implying that “hard-liners like Netanyahu” are to be lumped together with “hard-liners like Hamas,” the PA gets a free pass.

Is that because you genuinely believe they're squeaky clean, or rather because, as the political cliché goes, they're the “weaker party” and, therefore, need to be coddled?

Either way, you're missing an essential part of the story you're seeking to describe.

First, why isn't the PA at the bargaining table across from Israel? President Abbas was there till early 2009, when, it should be noted, neither side imposed preconditions on the other to pursue those talks. Importantly as well, the Israelis put a far-reaching two-state deal on that table – not the first such offer, by the way – only to have it once again rebuffed.

Anything to be learned from that experience?

Second, if the Palestinians can now seek to impose preconditions on Israel for a resumption of talks, why shouldn't Israel be able to do the same?

Moreover, when the prime minister you vilify became Israel's first leader to agree to a moratorium on settlement building for ten months, where were the Palestinians?

Third, did you catch President Abbas' speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, as part of his unilateral UN gambit? If so, would you characterize it as offering an olive branch? If you were an Israeli, irrespective of President Clinton's unbecoming attempt at ethno-religious categorizing of Israeli citizens, would you take comfort from the Palestinian leader's fiery words?

Fourth, did you by chance see President Abbas' op-ed, on May 15, in your newspaper? Did you notice his rewriting of Middle East history, which the fact checkers somehow missed? Was that piece meant to send an encouraging note to Israel, the other half of the equation, about the PA's credibility as a peace partner?

Fifth, did you read President Abbas' comment, in early September: “We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.”?

That, of course, takes the “occupation” back to 1948, the year of Israel's establishment, rather than the Six-Day War.

Does this mean, in Palestinian eyes, that the conflict is territorial or existential?

Sixth, did you notice the comment of the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah, as reported the other day in Lebanon's Daily Star?

The ambassador said, “even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”

In other words, he said, the new Palestinian state would “absolutely not” be issuing passports to Palestinian refugees.

Did the PA reject his comment? If so, I missed it.

And if a new Palestinian state is not the answer to the Palestinian refugee issue, then what exactly is?

Seventh, in Brazil, the Palestinian ambassador there, Alzebin Ibrahim, was quoted in the prominent magazine Veja-Brazil as saying to a contingent of university students that “Israel should disappear,” expressing his preference for the final outcome. Did you catch it?

Again, if the PA repudiated the ambassador's words, it escaped me.

Eighth, you note that the “Palestinians are divided,” but fail to mention the PA-Hamas reconciliation agreement or in any other way address how the Hamas factor is to be addressed in the context of the current diplomatic imbroglio.

Skipping it, however, won't make it go away – and it's not a minor matter, either.

Ninth, you omit any reference to another PA action that raises questions about prospects for peace – glorification of Palestinian terrorists.

Among the most glaring examples of late was the visit earlier this year by a PA cabinet minister, Issa Karake, to the family of Abbas Al-Sayed.

Al-Sayed was the Hamas mastermind of the terrorist attack on a Passover Seder in Netanya, an Israeli coastal city. Thirty people were killed in the assault. On March 28, 2011, Isake presented Al-Sayed's family with a commemorative plaque marking the ninth anniversary of the carnage.

If cold-blooded murderers are to be lionized by the PA, does this advance the prospects of peaceful conflict resolution?

And finally, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said more than once, if the PA were to recognize the goal of two states for two peoples, then, from Israel's viewpoint, the way would be paved for a speedy breakthrough.

But President Abbas can't acknowledge the link between Israel and the Jewish people, i.e., the inherent legitimacy of the state. In fact, he's made clear he won't.

How does that stance help inspire confidence to move the peace process forward?

Respectfully, the Israeli people don't need lectures on the imperatives of peace. After 63 years, I assure you, they understand what the absence of peace means far better than you and I do.

But they also know, to borrow a phrase from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro in another context, that “the press's misunderstanding was merely the wish's predilection to be father to the thought.”

Perhaps a clearer understanding of the realities on the ground might have steered you away from your own wishful thinking – and one-sided spin.

David Harris is AJC Executive Director

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Editor's Note: David's blogs are having worldwide impact. If you enjoy reading them, please share this one with your friends and make a donation to AJC.

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