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Does Obama present a new approach towards the Middle East?

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Navasky on Obama, pt. 3

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to our interviews with Victor Navasky, former publisher and editor of The Nation Magazine, now at the Columbia University School of Journalism a professor, and chair of The Columbia Journalism Review. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So in the first parts of our interview we’ve started to talk about who’s Obama, what’s the new center. We’ve been so far mostly focusing on foreign policy. And let’s dig in a little bit more to Israel, Gaza, Israel and Palestine, Mitchell heading off there. Just I was a little personally struck—and in a positive way, I thought—that Obama, and when he appointed Mitchell, spoke about Hamas, and here’s how Hamas can get back into the process, and laid out the recognition of Israel, renouncing violence. And so I thought that was good that at least he didn’t just say, “These guys are terrorists, and they’re part of the evil world, and we have to get rid of them all.” On the other hand, he’s endorsed the role of the American Navy to have a blockade around Gaza to stop arms from getting to Hamas. He talked about how Hamas has to stop their rockets. But he hasn’t talked much about how Israel would have to stop its use of military force against the Palestinians. It’s still pretty one-sided. So where do you find something new in this?

NAVASKY: Well, I’ll tell you what I find hopeful in it, but I think the basic situation on the ground is less hopeful than it’s been in a long, long time. I thought that about six years ago you had the makings of the end of the Clinton administration. Everyone sort of agreed on what had to be done: there had to be an exchange of land for peace. The former Soviet Union, the United States, the UN, and the European community, and the Arab League all were sort of online for the same solution to everything, and have an independent Palestinian state, and the like. Now the Palestinians are split and the Israelis are not looking for peace, and so the situation on the ground is awful. Having said that, his first call was to a Palestinian, not to an Israeli. The fact that he’s not meeting with Hamas in Syria is—I agree with you—unfortunate, on the one hand, but I never believed this—.

JAY: “He” being Mitchell.

NAVASKY: Yeah. But I never believed when these tough negotiators say, “We’re not talking to so-and-so.” Someone is talking. And so he’s not meeting with, but some aide is talking. I mean, and Hamas has to be part of some settlement. Is the idea of a two-state solution still possible in that part of the world? I think it’s possible and desirable for various reasons that we could discuss. But maybe it’s not. And so then what? And it’s very complicated, as you know, and I don’t have the magic solution to that.

JAY: But the magic solution, to some extent, has always been in the White House. The leverage over Israel has always been there.

NAVASKY: Yeah. You can’t do what Bush proclaimed he was going to do when he became president, and that was nothing, and that he was going to withdraw from involvement in the Middle East. And, now, I think—again, this is a belief in Obama’s instincts—that—and there, yes, he wants stability, but he wants peace in the Middle East. And if he could do that by carving out two states in a land-for-peace exchange—. And there’s—I forget who—oh, Friedman, who I always disagree with—I found some logic to his column yesterday, where he was listing, you know, how you’d have peacekeeping forces on both sides, and Egypt would play a role, and Syria, etcetera. So what the exact elements of the formula are to me is less important, and they are trying to deal with it in a direct way. And Israel shamelessly tried to get in under the gun of the end of the Bush administration. I think they were provoked, and then they reacted in a disproportionate way. And that’s the history of that part of the world.

JAY: But even the “provoke” comes out of six months of blockade in Gaza, which the United Nations and everyone says has created an unlivable situation there.

NAVASKY: I’m out of the blame game in that part of the world, ’cause I was once with the late Eqbal Ahmad, and Eqbal always would say, “Okay. When shall we begin? Do you want to begin with the Ottoman Empire?” You know, whose fault is it? And we can go back and forth that way. So that’s to me less important than what do you do now.

JAY: But what do you do now is going to have to be some sign from the Obama administration, one would think, that we’re not just “Israel, always right.”

NAVASKY: Yes. Of course. Absolutely.

JAY: And we haven’t had that yet.

NAVASKY: We haven’t heard it yet. Yes. But I think we will—.

JAY: So, in terms of judging the—.

NAVASKY: I think in the American context, though, if you remember, in the campaign, the fear in the part of the organized Jewish community, not most Jews [inaudible], was that Obama was going to be neutral, he was going to be fair-minded, he was going to be even-edged. That was the fear!

JAY: And he went out of his way at AIPAC to say, “Don’t worry. I’m with you guys.” His AIPAC speech almost went too far.

NAVASKY: “I’m with you. You are the democracy in the Middle East.” And the like. You know, another thing we haven’t talked about yet is his statement about he’s not going to make it a priority to try these torturers and other war criminals from recent years, but he’s more concerned with the future. However, he said if there are crimes that are reported, that they will deal with them in the way that a legal system is supposed to, and not try and shove them under some ideological [inaudible]

JAY: So is that enough for you? Michael Ratner, in an interview we did with him, I thought made a really very clear point. When we saw Obama sign the executive orders closing Guantanamo and reversing some of the most grievous abuses of power of the Bush administration with a stroke of his pen, Ratner made the point, well, the next president can have another stroke of the pen and just reverse them, that if they’re not prosecuted and it isn’t made an issue of law, then you’re just back into who happens to have the pen.

NAVASKY: I’m a believer in the international community, and I’m a believer in the Hague, and I’m a believer in the International Court of Justice, and I’m a believer in building up the United Nations so that it deals with international problems. If we don’t pay our dues on time and if we use it cynically, then that’s not going to happen. It’s not for us unilaterally, necessarily, to go around and correct all [“veelz”] in the world.

JAY: But we’re talking about Bush and Cheney here.

NAVASKY: I know. I know. So I am very sympathetic to the idea of David Cole, professor at Georgetown, who is on the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who wrote in a recent New York Review of Books, I believe (he’s also a Nation—he’s on our board, The Nation’s board), that there ought to be—and whether it’s created by the Congress, by the United Nations, by the administration, there ought to be an inquiry. And he did in that essay say what should be done at the other end, that should these people be put on trial for breaking laws? And where? In the United States, in the Hague, or anything else? But there ought to be an inquiry so that all of the stuff comes out about what we did, and what laws were broken, and who did what, and how cynically. And at that point, it seems to me, yes, people ought to be tried for crimes they committed. On the other hand, to what proportion of your resources, energy, attention, speech-making budget do you devote to truth and reconciliation? What proportion do you devote to the past? And what portion to the future? I’m less concerned that Obama has both of those balls in the air and he recognizes the one and he puts his emphasis on the other.

JAY: Well, one of the reasons he’s given for not pursuing the prosecution is looking forward, not looking back, and also in terms of building as much of kind of alliances, and not to create a war with people he has to lie with. But in the next—.

NAVASKY: He says—.

JAY: We’re going to introduce the next segment of our interview, ’cause we’re running out of time in this one. So in the next segment of interview, I’m going to ask you: in building these alliances with the right of the Republic Party in order to accomplish certain things, at what point, for the sake of the alliance, do you become who you’re allying with? And please join us for the next segment of our interview with Victor Navasky.


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Victor Saul Navasky (born July 5, 1932) is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was editor of The Nation from 1978 until 1995, and its publisher and editorial director 1995 to 2005. In November 2005 he became the publisher emeritus. Before coming to The Nation he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine and wrote a monthly column about the publishing business ("In Cold Print") for the Times Book Review.