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August 04, 2010

Fascinating Back-and-Forth With Michael Totten, On Israel, on the Conflict, on Obama's Idealistic Stupidity

This is a truly great read, a conversation that's interesting not just because it's loaded with insight and perspective, but because it's an actual conversation, transcribed as it happened, and an enjoyably erudite one at that.

There's a lot of good stuff here (it's quite long) but I'll focus on the brief bit about Obama and the press, because, I guess, not every conservative cares so much about the ins and outs of Israeli politics or what Zionism actually is but we all care about Obama and the press.

And Europeans and their arrogance.

That said -- this isn't the best section of the interview at all. Other sections are better, such as the parts on Zionism, or whether the Palestinians have an actual identity as a people, or on the anger Israelis feel at the nonstop Nazi slurs. But this is the "grabby" part.

Read the whole thing, as they say, but if you can't, here's some interesting stuff.

MJT: So whatís it like to read about Israel in the foreign press?

Benjamin Kerstein: Surreal.

MJT: How so?

Benjamin Kerstein: It rarely bears any resemblance to the country I live in, mainly because it either deals only with the conflict or because the news is produced by people who live in the English-speaking Jerusalem bubble.

MJT: Tell me about the English-speaking Jerusalem bubble.

Benjamin Kerstein: Thereís a large population of English speakers in Jerusalem. The people who speak English tend to gather around each other, especially if theyíre in the higher reaches of government or the media. They tend to hang out with other English-speaking people. They go to the places where such people congregate, they read English-language newspapers, and they watch English-language television. They have very little contact with the rest of Israel, which is predominantly Hebrew-speaking....

What they portray as Israeli is a corner of a corner of a corner of this country.

More excerpts below.


MJT: What about governments? The US and European government have their opinions about and positions on Israel, and most of their officials have never been here. They hardly know anything. Theyíre the ultimate outsiders, way more than conflict tourists or journalists who have at least spent some time in the place.


Benjamin Kerstein: My guess is that Europe and America have a pretty simple attitude: they want a solution to the conflict. Itís a pain in the ass for them, and theyíd like it to go away.

MJT: Of course. Aside from Hamas, Hezbollah, and so on, who doesnít want it to go away?

Benjamin Kerstein: But I also think officials in the US, Europe, and elsewhere are much less naÔve than their public statements make them appear. I donít think many of them believe that the peace process, for instance, is nearly as easy as they say it should be. They say things like, ďIf we could just get the Israeli and Palestinians to sit down and talk, we could reach a solution.Ē

I think most of them are smart enough to know that isnít true. I also think theyíre smart enough to know that a lot of it isnít Israelís fault, but by blaming most of it on Israel they can buy themselves leverage in the Arab world. I think the Arab world understands this perfectly well, that itís the politics of the gesture.

I have to say, though, that when foreign governments say Israel has to make concessions and take responsibility for the conflict, Israelis take it all very seriously. The charge of disproportionality during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the Goldstone ReportóIsraelis do not take into consideration the possibility that these may just be gestures. Israelis take it personally, and they become very angry. Israelis feel very strongly that the world is against them.

MJT: Why do you suppose that is?

Benjamin Kerstein: Most Israelis are here because they fled from Muslim and European countries. They donít feel that either of those blocs have the right to lecture them about anything. Why should a country where your parents were expelled or killed have the right to tell you how to conduct yourself in a war against people who are trying to kill you today? This is something hardly any non-Israelis understand. They donít understand how galling we find this.

Israelis are often accused of being arrogant, but they find it extremely arrogant for Europeans and Arabs to lecture them about morals, especially during a war. What has Israel ever done that is as brutal as what Europe did to the Jews, or what Arabs routinely do to even each other during armed conflicts?

I suspect, though, that a lot of the rhetoric is just that. Itís just rhetoric. If you look at what Europe actually does, in a lot of cases itís better than what the rhetoric would suggest.


I think the smart leaders in Europe are trying to lessen the tension here now, and I think theyíre doing a much better job than America is. Barack Obama actually seems to believe that he can end the conflict. He doesnít seem to be trying to lessen the tension. He seem to be willing to exacerbate tensions if he thinks it might bring results.

MJT: Whatís he doing to exacerbate tension that Europe is not?

Benjamin Kerstein: Calling for a settlement freeze.

MJT: But the Europeans have been doing that all along.

Benjamin Kerstein: Yeah, but it has less bite to it. They donít have much clout here. They have never been able to produce any results. When the US says it, though, the Palestinians are forced to respond to it. If Obama calls for a settlement freeze, Mahmoud Abbas canít negotiate until after a settlement freeze. When Europe calls for a settlement freeze, Abbas can dismiss it as irrelevant and remain in peace talks with Israel, but he canít be softer on Israel than America is.

By the Way: Totten has a book coming out this spring. He's also seeking donations for his reader-financed reportage -- PayPal button at page's bottom.

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