March 10, 2009

New York Times columnist wants a "reality check?"

Roger Cohen (left), a well-respected columnist for the New York Times and its subsidiary the International Herald Tribune, penned a column titled "Middle East Reality Check." Interesting reading. Had it been written by anyone without Mr. Cohen's experience, I would have asked, "Who is this clown?"

Mr. Cohen appears to have at least set foot in the Middle East a few times, unlike many of the current "experts" advising the Administration - and we know how well that is working so far. I think Mr. Cohen is being surprisingly naive at best, and dangerously obtuse at worst. Rather than simply dismissing his arguments and calling him names, let me address some of his points.

Basically, Mr. Cohen is urging the Obama Administration to deal directly with the terrorist groups - my definition, not his - Hizballah and Hamas, following the British determination that Hizballah is a "political phenomenon." Here's an analogy - given the events of the last few days, I wonder how many Britons still think the Irish Republican Army is just a "political phenomenon?"

Last week, the United Kingdom announced that it has reconsidered is position on Hizballah and was now prepared to have direct contacts with the Lebanese group. Mr. Cohen's reaction to this news? "Hallelujah," he says, claiming that Hizballah is "part of the national fabric" of Lebanon. Realistically then, in his view, we must deal with them. He feels the same about Hamas - the people who are firing rockets daily into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip (photo below).

There is no question that Hizballah and Hamas are each a part of the "national fabric" of their respective countries - both are political parties and provide social services. There is, however, the pesky little detail that both have armed extralegal militias that are not under the control of government authorities. Being "part of the national fabric" does not bestow legitimacy.

Mr. Cohen notes that both Hizballah and Hamas have long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. True, Hizballah and Hamas have been named as terrorist organizations by successive administrations. There is a reason for this - they are terrorist organizations. Hizballah has American blood on its hands.

If we take Mr. Cohen's reasoning a step further, there are other groups that are part of the national fabric of their countries - perhaps we should look at direct engagement with them. There is Al-Qa'idah in Mesopotamia, arguably part of the national fabric in Iraq. Perhaps we should reach out to them - thugs who torture, rape and behead people as a means to their ends?

Then there is the Taliban in Afghanistan, certainly part of the national fabric. Wait, perhaps Mr. Cohen has spoken to President Obama - the President is willing to talk to the Taliban. See my article, Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists.

In a moment of clarity, Mr. Cohen does address American requirements for dealing with Hamas, reiterated recently by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her as yet unproductive trip to the region. According to the Secretary, Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous Palestinian commitments.

Then - surprisingly - he adds:

The 1988 Hamas Charter is vile, but I think it’s wrong to get hung up on the prior recognition of Israel issue. Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state.

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Wrong to get "hung up on the prior recognition of Israel?" We (and/or the Israelis) should sit at the table with a group that remains committed to the destruction of Israel? Using the justification that Israel may not want a two-state solution is an easy way out of calling Hamas what it is - a terrorist organization.

Perhaps Mr. Cohen should tell his Hamas friends that a good first step to opening a dialogue with either the United States or Israel would be to stop firing rockets into Israel.

More of Mr. Cohen's eloquence:

Speaking of violence, it’s worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.

In response to "sporadic Hamas rockets?" Hamas has fired 8000 rockets into Sderot since Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. I guess if you live in New York, 8000 rockets being fired into Sderot could be called sporadic.

The Israelis will be relieved to know that you believe they have the right to strike back when attacked. Of course, you want their response to be "proportional." How do you define that? One rocket into Israel, one missile into Gaza? That's not how it works.

I read your biography - the lack of military experience (writing a book about General Schwarzkopf does not count) explains a lot. When you order troops into harm's way, you are not looking for a fair fight - you use overwhelming force to achieve your objectives. There is something about being the target of shots fired in anger that really helps you reach this opinion. One of Israel's objectives in Gaza was to kill as many Hamas fighters as they could. Even according to Hamas's numbers, most of the dead were in fact associated with the group.

You were shamed by Israel's actions. How about Hamas's?