Bennis: Public discourse about alleged Israeli war crimes is a break-through, as soldiers speak
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Israeli troops admit abuses in Gaza
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming from our studio in Washington, DC. Today, The New York Times—you can see it here—has a headline which says, “Soldiers’ account of Gaza killings are raisin a furor in Israel.” And here’s a report from BBC on the same story.
Did the Israeli army commit war crimes in Gaza? The Palestinians say that’s evident from the shelling of a UN school full of refugees. Or the use of the incendiary white phosphorous. But now testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers about the deliberate killing of civilians.
JAY: Joining us to talk about this story is Phyllis Bennis. She works for the institute for policy studies in Washington. She writes regularly on the Middle East and has recently written a book Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. And that probably even speaks to what we’re about to talk about. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So, on the cover of The New York Times, in the same paragraph, the words “war crimes” and “Israel.” What do you make of that?
BENNIS: Well, it’s a very important development, not so much because this is news, that the behavior of Israeli soldiers in Gaza, and particularly during the recent military attack in December and January, were in violation of international law, in violation of a host of international covenants. But the fact that now, number one, Israeli soldiers now are coming forward and saying that they had no restrictions, they were told to kill on sight. And that’s being picked up on the front page of The New York Times. Now, it’s interesting that it was already in the Israeli press two days ago, in Haaretz in particular, what’s known as the New York Times of Israel, the sort of establishment daily paper. But I think that what we’ve seen for many, many years is that the Israeli press is in general far more willing to cover a wider range of opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about US policy towards Israel and Palestine, etcetera, than is the US press. So the fact that The New York Times is now saying this, after a piece yesterday, also of the front page of The Times, that talked about how Israel has never been this isolated in the world as it is now as a result of the Gaza attack. This is huge. It speaks to the incredible shift in discourse that we have seen in this country over the last three years. And I think a lot of it is because of the work of civil society organizations, churches, coalitions like the US campaign to end Israeli occupation, the work that’s known, the strategy known as BDS—Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—that uses economic pressure all around the world on Israel to push Israel to stop its violations of international law. This is huge, this level of change.
JAY: Now, the fact that the discourse has changed—I think it’s clear from The New York Times. You can see this. But further than that, it wasn’t long ago Charles Freeman was supposed to receive a senior intelligence post in the Obama administration. And as everyone says, some people call it the Israel lobby, some people call it the Likud lobby, but Freeman didn’t get the job.
BENNIS: Well, Freeman got the job. He resigned as a result of the pressure that was put on him by the lobby, orchestrated by the lobby, and executed through members of Congress, direct to the Obama administration. This was a huge sign of danger to come. I think that it was in fact the first really bad action on this issue by the Obama administration. We’ve heard some bad language. We’ve heard language that sounds scarily like the Bush administration’s language about why we won’t talk to Hamas about what Hamas must do about settlements being called “unhelpful,” rather than the clearer “illegal,” which was the earlier position by the US government. So we’ve heard some bad language, but we also saw some very good actions, most particularly the appointment of former senator George Mitchell to be the special envoy to the Middle East, rather than one of the usual suspects—Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Richard Haas.
JAY: Of course, Ross got the Iran job.
BENNIS: Yeah, but he’s only one of several now with the Iran job. So he isn’t quite as influential as he has been in the past. But I think on this job it was very important, not only because the Mitchell report, the report that George Mitchell had to coordinate in 2000, 2001 on Israel-Palestine was one of the clearest ever of a US-government-sponsored report in targeting the role of settlements, how settlement expansion is the single most important thing that’s preventing any kind of a solution, any kind of a settlement. Let me say one other thing about Mitchell. The other thing that’s so important about him is his history in Ireland. He was, of course, the lead architect of the Good Friday Accords that led to the end of the violence in Northern Ireland. And what’s important about that is the lessons that he drew from it in a very important article that he wrote in the summer of 2007, just a couple of years ago. But before he was ever being considered for any kind of position, before there was an Obama administration about to happen, he wrote an article where he said the most important thing that we learned from the Good Friday process was that you have to have everybody at the table, and you can’t make distinctions because you don’t like them, because you think they’re terrorists. You have to have everybody at the table. That’s a huge lesson if they apply it to the Middle East.
JAY: But caving on Freeman—how significant is that? Certainly this conversation about war crimes that’s now breaking through to The New York Times—and, of course, much of the world’s been talking about this for months—we have not heard anything from the Obama administration about the possibility of war crimes, or, frankly, even concern that there was a disproportionate use of violence in Gaza.
BENNIS: We may hear later that Charles Freeman was what they used to call a premature anti-—what would we call it?—anti-human-rights violator, something like that, the way people in this country used to talk about premature anti-fascists to refer to those who went to Spain to fight against fascism before World War II, before we were fighting against fascism. So I think that the action of the Obama administration, which can really be defined as inaction—the Obama presidency stood mute while these extraordinary attacks on Charles Freeman, some of which—. I mean, it was not only disagreements with his position on Israel. You want to disagree with us? Okay. Fine. Have that debate. Is Israel in fact violating international law? Let’s talk about it.
JAY: And, of course, Freeman’s positions don’t go any further than much of the Israeli discourse itself.
BENNIS: Absolutely right. The problem was it also allowed a level of personal attack on Freeman that was quite unconscionable, and no one came to his—.
JAY: Now, they had to know that proposing Freeman would elicit this response. They’re not naive about this.
BENNIS: They’re not naive, except I think they may be naive on the level of the quantitative question. I think they knew there would be criticism. I don’t think they necessarily recognized what this lobby is capable of orchestrating when it chooses to, ’cause, remember, the Obama administration and the people closest to the president are new to this. Now, Joe Biden is not. He must have known. Whether he was involved in it, we don’t know. But we do know that the only person who came to the defense of Charles Freeman was Admiral Blair, Dennis Blair, who was the one who appointed him. There was no one higher—not the vice president, and not the president, crucially—who came to the defense of his own nominee. So this was a very bad act. Now, one likes to be optimistic, and I’m trying to be optimistic here. I think it’s not impossible that what we may see as a result of this—because, remember, the day after Freeman resigned, saying, “I won’t be able to do this job under this kind of pressure,” there were front page articles in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, headlines in all the major news outlets, saying—not quoting people, just asserting as a matter of obvious fact—the pro-Israeli lobby orchestrated this. I don’t think President Obama wants to look weak. I don’t think President Obama wants to look like someone who is unable to stand up to that lobby. He came to this office mobilizing people in broader numbers than any other president, and he did so explicitly saying the time for the power of lobbies representing very small interest groups is over. I think once he realized the consequences of allowing this to happen without his coming to the defense of his own nominee, he may realize that it’s going to rebound negatively on his presidency. And I hope that it will lead to him, in the future, becoming much more willing to use that backbone that we know he has and say, “This is unacceptable. You don’t treat people like this. You don’t make accusations like this. This is my nominee, and that’s the end of story. This is not a nomination that needs to go to Congress, and I don’t need congresspeople and senators calling me and saying why they don’t like it. They were not elected to be president; I was elected to be president. And that gives me the right to make this appointment. The rest of you, we can talk later.
JAY: Well, we certainly didn’t hear that, and I guess we’ll wait to see if we do.
BENNIS: I hope that we do.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.