Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Fairfax doubles down on poorly informed and tendentious commentaries

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Peter George was the ABC's first Middle East correspondent, dating back to the 1980s. Yet by the looks of an op-ed that he wrote and was prominently published on August 6 in Fairfax' flagship papers - The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times, he is still living in the past - refusing to acknowledge the numerous concessions and policy risks Israel has taken since the 1993 Oslo Agreement towards reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, including under current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, nor the shift in Israeli views since then, with clear public majorities and all major political parties supporting a two-state resolution.

Instead, George literally rewrites history in his op-ed, bizarrely seeming to blame Netanyahu for the security fence and unfairly portraying him as an impediment to Palestinian statehood.

George wrote:

Since he took the reins in 2009, Netanyahu has fulfilled the worst fears of Israelis and friends abroad who believed in the prospect of a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians - the only path by which Israel can survive and prosper.
Hand-in-hand with rejectionist politicians, an aggressive settler movement and those who believe in an expansionist Israel, Netanyahu has determinedly blocked Palestinian aspirations for nationhood - the very same aspirations that the Jewish diaspora fulfilled in 1948. Jewish settlements in occupied territories and the "security wall" are merely physical manifestations of wide-ranging policies that undermine any prospect of an equitable settlement under Netanyahu.

George's characterization of Netanyahu fails the accuracy test on many levels:

• Netanyahu endorsed the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state in a policy speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009.
• Fewer housing units have been built in the settlements under Netanyahu than under his predecessors. The vast majority of units that have been built are in settlement bloc areas that have been proposed to swap back to Israel as part of a comprehensive agreement - something that has been agreed to in principle discretely by the Palestinians and overtly by the Arab League.
• Netanyahu is the Israeli prime minister to have instituted the longest temporary freeze of construction in the settlements, back in 2010.
• The security fence was built by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to bring a halt to infiltrations into Israel by Palestinian suicide bombers. It succeeded. No major Israeli politician on the Left or Right has proposed unilaterally removing this barrier in the absence of a peace agreement and there is no support for such a move by the overwhelming majority of Israelis.
• The Palestinians themselves have blocked their own aspirations for nationhood by refusing to negotiate on Israeli red lines such as recognition of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people and the so-called "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israel, which is aimed at transforming Israel into a de facto Palestinian state demographically.

George's revision of history extends to his inexplicable tarring of Sharon for his policies regarding Gaza.

But Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon failed to heed the lessons that Rabin learnt in the 80s.
Their policies of increasing the stranglehold on Gazans in their prison and refusing to deal in any way with their elected government, while tightening the fist of occupation on West Bank and East Jerusalem and leaving no hope for peace have led directly to the latest series of catastrophes.

This is, of course, the reverse of what is true. One of Sharon's last major moves before his stroke in December 2005 was to bulldoze all of Israel's settlements in Gaza and withdraw the IDF from the Strip. Furthermore, Sharon had absolutely nothing to do with Israel's eventual blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's successor Olmert instituted the blockade in response to increasing rocket attacks from the vacated territory and tightened it after Hamas took over the Strip in 2007 in a bloody coup.

Even the greatest critics of Israel's blockade must concede the fact that the blockade has only been steadily weakened under Netanyahu.

Yet as much as George is quick to assume the worst about Netanyahu's intentions, he's equally eager to assume the best about Hamas - in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

George wrote:

Faced with such overwhelming military firepower and by such political intransigence, Hamas will continue to fight in the only way it can for as long as it can - from amidst the chaos of a devastated city in one of the most densely crowded places on earth. Some of its attacks will inevitably be launched from heavily populated areas of Gaza. Just about everywhere is densely packed while to "come out and fight in the open" - as Israel seems to be daring the resistance to do - is a ludicrous invitation to suicide in the face of such overwhelming and sophisticated force. Armies hate urban warfare where overwhelming force becomes vulnerable to guerilla tactics.

Hamas can't rewrite international law to suit its tactics and neither can George. There is a reason why international law forbids the kind of guerrilla warfare tactics that Hamas uses. It makes fighting the enemy impossible without killing some innocent civilians. This is the very essence of immorality. There are, of course, open spaces in Gaza that Hamas could fight from if it chose to do so, but it chooses not to, at the cost of innocent life (For more on this, see Robert Ellenhorn's recent blog "The truth about the population density of Gaza and Hamas tactics".

George continued:

In government, Hamas has proved itself incompetent and aggressive. But it is not, as Netanyahu charges, built in the mould of the extreme Islamist movement in Iraq and Syria, ISIS. It could be brought to the table. It has already agreed to a unity government with the secular PLO - a moved blocked by Israel.

But it's not incompetence that has guided Hamas' actions in Gaza. Its policies are deliberate and intentional. One does not "accidentally" spend hundreds of millions of dollars on terror tunnels and forget to pay the electricity bill.
In agreeing to a unity government, it did not accept the parameters of the Quartet. This is a false "unity" that allows a terror organisation to flourish under the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority without the PA taking responsibility for Hamas' actions.
A Hamas that George believes is ready to make peace with Israel is, sadly, a figment of his imagination.

In closing, George criticizes Netanyahu for not being like Rabin - failing to understand that Rabin, unlike Netanyahu, had a peace partner willing to take incremental steps towards peace. The Palestinian Authority that Netanyahu negotiates with today is unwilling to discuss even interim measures to bring peace closer - and this cannot be something that Netanyahu can be blamed for.

The many shortcomings of George's essay were not offset by a more nuanced, but ultimately deeply flawed follow-up essay by David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, that was published in The Age and Canberra Times on August 11 under the title "Why Israel lost the war in Gaza".

Unlike George, Rothkopf concedes some merit to Israel's arguments regarding Hamas and Gaza. But he makes the same mistake as George, attributing Hamas' actions to desperation instead of being the fruits of long-term warmaking policies. He also draws a repugnant moral equivalence between the offensive actions of Hamas and the defensive actions of Israel.

With an open heart, it is easy to understand the fear and the heartbreak and the impulse for survival that have pushed both groups [Israel and Hamas] to the desperate acts they have committed.

At the heart of Rothkopf's essay is his idea that the "winner" of the war is the one who comes out of it with more international sympathy.

If Israel's goal was to delegitimise Hamas, whatever it achieved during these past three weeks came at the expense of its own reputation. No matter how many articulate spokespeople Israel rolls out to discuss human shields, they are trumped by the images of dead and wounded women and children, the stories of displaced families, the ground truth of an advanced, technologically sophisticated, militarily powerful nation laying waste to a land it occupies in order to root out a small cadre of fighters who pose little strategic threat to it.

This is a strawman's argument, however. Israel's goal was not to delegitimise Hamas. Hamas was already delegitimised by the international community for being a terror organisation. Israel's goal was to defend Israel's citizens. Any perceived blow to Israel's image as a result of Hamas' war, its propaganda campaign and immoral tactics of using Gaza's civilians as sacrificial lambs would be understood as a secondary consideration for Israel's leaders, and understandably so.

Nations have not only a right but an obligation to protect their citizens from armed attack. Rothkopf is basically arguing that Israel should not do so in order for people to like it better.

Looming even larger, however, is Rothkopf's claim that one of Netanyahu's goals has been to prevent the Palestinians from gaining statehood.

[The current Gaza conflict is], at its heart, like most aspects of Israel's long struggle with the Palestinians, about the terms by which the people of Palestine will get the state that is theirs by every right and precept of international law and decency. Therefore, Israel's action has to be assessed in terms of whether it will help or hurt its own standing in that negotiation, in which both sides participate by virtue of their daily actions whether there's a formal negotiating table in place or not... even if Hamas is weakened by the actions of the past few weeks, and the world (including perhaps Hamas) realises the benefits of allowing the Palestinian Authority to take the lead on behalf of the Palestinian people, that transfer to a more legitimate leadership takes away one of Israel's favourite excuses for not making progress towards an agreement. In the absence of Hamas and the divisions it brought, you have a more unified and internationally acceptable Palestinian regime.

Yet Rothkopf's premise is simply wrong. Israel has been trying to reach an agreement, not looking for "excuses for not making progress towards an agreement". As AIJAC National Chairman Mark Leibler pointed out in an op-ed published on the SMH's website on August 12:

American peace mediator Martin Indyk recently said that Netanyahu was in the "zone of agreement" in recent peace talks, while an in-depth study of the recent failure of the Kerry peace initiative by Ben Birnbaum in the New Republic showed that Netanyahu had agreed to the US formula of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 boundaries with minor, mutually agreed, land swaps.

Rothkopf's essay, while giving lip service to some of Israel's arguments, ultimately views the war through the prism that Hamas wishes it to be seen - placing the blame on Israel for causing civilian deaths in its effort to fight Hamas instead of blaming Hamas for such deaths by shielding themselves with civilians and militarising residential areas. It's only natural that he should hand Hamas a win as a foregone conclusion.

But for all the care we may and should give to looking at such a crisis in a balanced way, at the end of the day, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one side actually did come out of this the loser. That is because when the final results and long-term implications of those results are tallied up, they are likely to suggest Israel both won less and lost more than did the Palestinian people.

Sadly, it is conclusions based on morally flawed arguments like Rothkopf's that will fuel the next war Hamas inflicts on Israel, at the expense of innocent people on both sides. By handing a symbolic "win" to Hamas, by buying into their justifications for the war and the way it was fought - while rejecting Israel's effort to defend itself without suggesting a better defence option - Rothkopf undermines his own support for a negotiated two-state peace solution by sending a message to the Palestinians that war - and not peaceful negotiation - brings positive results.

Ahron Shapiro

 

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