Roger Cohen’s Recklessness

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 15, 2010.
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Roger Cohen, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, is not obsessed with Israel; it only seems that way. During the last 10 weeks, only(!) five of his Times columns have dealt directly with Israel. I admit that I share the obsession, but not the places it takes him.

In his column on December 10, for example, Cohen goes to considerable length to establish that “The view that American Jews supportive of Israel but critical of its policies are not ‘real Jews’ is… widespread.” His evidence? That “Israel-right-or-wrong continues to be the core approach of major U.S. Jewish organizations, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.”

Whoa. I am not a fan of either AIPAC or the Presidents Conference, but in all the years I have interacted with both, sometimes in vehement disagreement, I have never ever caught even a hint that I am not regarded as “a real Jew” — nor have I heard anyone else so characterized. It is bad enough that people who argue about Israel’s wisdom are often characterized as not being “pro-Israel,” as if the only way to be counted as pro-Israel is to turn off your critical faculties, and it is true that the critics are sometimes crudely dismissed as “enemies of Israel.” But not “real Jews?” Blather.

Debate over Israel’s policies and actions, Cohen informs us, “remains stifled,” and there is doubtless truth to that, although Cohen brings trivial testimony — AIPAC’s refusal to debate J Street — to bear witness. As far as I am aware, AIPAC doesn’t do debate. Still, any number of synagogues and other institutions have learned and are still learning how divisive debate on Israel can be, and J Street — of which I am an early and enthusiastic supporter — is these days often the fulcrum of the ongoing and too often ugly debate.

Small stuff, perhaps, sloppier than we are entitled to expect of a Times regular. But then Cohen makes a grand leap — or, more precisely, a reckless plunge: The reason for the breakdown of Middle East peace talks, he tells us, is that President Obama “had virtually no domestic constituency for his attempt to denounce the continued growth of settlements.”

Yet survey after survey has shown that a significant majority of American Jews agrees with Obama’s position on settlements; J Street itself experienced phenomenal growth during the very period that settlements were the principal aggravation of the process; more important, numbers of close observers of the Israel/Palestine conflict, including many who themselves lament the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements, thought that using settlements as the first major issue was a serious tactical mistake. It got things started on the wrong foot, and by the time of the recent negotiation for a 90-day extension of Israel’s partial moratorium on construction, the initiative was legless. America’s effort to bribe Israel into the extension was worse than farce; by the end, it was obscene.

Obama and his people, for all their good intentions, lacked much more than a constituency; they lacked a persuasive strategy. Worse still, pinning blame for the failure on the absence of political support absolves the principal culprits — to wit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas. For nearly two years, Netanyahu played Obama, and won, hands down, time after time. Abbas, for his part, allowed the initial 10-month construction moratorium to go to waste.

Speaking at a Saban Center conference at the Brookings Institution on December 10, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reviewed in unusual detail the administration’s plans and perspectives on the Israel/Palestine conflict and the steps required for its resolution. (Cohen’s paper, The New York Times, didn’t think much of her speech. It ran its report on page 10 of Saturday’s paper, and one can almost hear the reporter yawning as he wrote the story. Nothing new, he reports.) She laid down an agenda for indirect negotiations between the two sides, an agenda that quite sensibly is emphatic in its endorsement of a two-state solution.

Clinton promised that “in the days ahead, our discussions with both sides will be substantive two-way conversations with an eye toward making real progress in the next few months on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement. The United States will not be a passive participant. We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.”

“Real specificity,” if it comes to pass, will be a welcome change. As it happens, it would also become Roger Cohen, whose characteristic imprecision corrupts the virtue of his convictions and does no favor to the cause he supports.


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