Question for Barack Obama on Middle East Envoys: How come there ain’t no brothers on the wall?


by James M. Wall

The word on the street is that President-elect Obama has chosen three envoys to represent him in the Middle East. All three are AIPAC certified, which means they will travel from Tel Aviv to Islamabad with a certification stamped on their passports that reads: The bearer can be trusted to take only those actions which are in the best interests of the state of Israel.

Three other veteran Middle East diplomats are not on the list: Aaron David Miller, Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski. They have either lost, or never had, AIPAC certification.

During Barack Obama’s Democratic primary struggles against Hillary Clinton, AIPAC’s candidate for president, this trio of Miller, Malley and Brezenski, provided advice to Obama. No more. All three Middle East specialists were jettisoned overboard by Obama as so much baggage to lighten his political load.  All three diplomats had failed to pass the absolute loyalty to Israel test.

It need not be this way. On the home front, Barack Obama chose an intelligence leadership team with no connections to the dark past of  the Bush-Cheney torture policies, described in Phillippe Sand’s’ Torture Team. (Reviewed in the London Guardian). An Obama administration says goodbye water-tortures and renditions, farewell Abu Gharib and Gitmo. This is change we can believe in.

The federal budget? Obama picked Nancy Killefer to birddog his budget, sniffing out “dubious government programs” that waste the taxpayers’ money.  And, take note, all programs means Social Security and Medicare as well as bridges to nowhere. Again, change we can believe in, our tax dollars spent wisely.

But for the Obama envoy team in the Greater Middle East, where is the change? If these appointments go through we will have business as usual, Clinton and Bush redux, sixteen years, and counting, of a White House that is the Best (and Only remaining) Friend Israel has left on the globe.

On torture, Medicare and Social Security, Obama acts boldly.  But on Israel, the source of the Middle Eastern anguish, Obama turns his back on change.

Journalist and blogger Phillip Weiss strongly disapproves of the Obama envoys for Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine. (If you don’t know that US loyalty to Israel has a major impact on all those areas, well, you are not paying attention in class.)

Weiss can say the unsayable on this topic because, even though he is anything  but AIPAC certified, he is a proudly Jewish blogger from New York City, whose daily dialogues with his fellow Jews of all political persuasions are must reading for anyone wanting to listen in on discussions across the Jewish political spectrum. (It helps if  you understand Yiddish).

Weiss, a journalist with the New York Sun when he isn’t writing his blog, uses his Mondoweiss blog to cry out to Jews and non-Jews, hey, out there, pay attention to the Jewish influence on American policy in the Middle East. Here is a recent posting by Weiss with news of those flawed appointments:

Obama is said to have chosen Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrooke and Richard Haass as his envoys re Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine respectively. And the Israel lobby is just another lobby. It is not that some Jews can’t be fairminded. And I don’t know much about Haass except that he’s utterly conventional, a former Bushie, pro-Iraq, mobbed up with Martin Indyk. The issue here is, religion and ethnicity matter. Where’s the balance? Where’s [Daniel] Kurtzer? Where’s [Aaron David] Miller? Where’s an Arab-American? Where’s…. Obama?

There is still no MSM (main stream media) official word on these appointments, but the conservative Atlantic Monthly blog seems pretty sure that the envoy team is set (though in an update he is not quite certain on Haass):

Transition officials confirm that President-elect Obama has asked Dennis Ross, Richard Haass, and Richard Holbrooke, to serve as his chief emissaries to  world hot spots.

It’s expected that Ross will get the Iran portfolio, that Holbrooke, the hard-headed architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, will take the tough (and tougher) Southwest Asia portfolio, which includes India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that Haass will deal with the Middle East.  Each men’s turf is still in flux, so the assignments might change. Other envoys will be added to this list; they’ll deal with Africa and South America.

All three have the chops; all three are considered realists; all three have direct experience as envoys; Haass was the U.S. government’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland; Ross shuttled between Mideast capitals during the Clinton administration, and Holbrooke, as mentioned, brought warring sides together in the Balkans.  Haas served under Presidents Clinton and Bush and is currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.   A transition spokesman declined to comment. . . .

No question but that this trio has “chops”, are “realists” and extensive experience as envoys.  All three beamed down from pictures on the State Department wall during the eight years of the Clinton administration. Their loyalty to Israel is well known to AIPAC, the Jewish Lobby, and politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv.  They all possess what Holly Hunter in O Brother Where Art Thou, calls “bona fides”, the seal of approval that satisfied the editorial boards of, you know, the usual crowd, the Post, Times, Tribune, Wall Street Journal.

Palestinians now under fire in Gaza are crying out to Barack Obama with their own version of a question from Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing:

The place in Sal’s Pizzeria. The location is New York City’s Harlem. It is the hottest day of the summer. Tensions are high.                       do-the-right-thing3

Young African American patron: (Giancarlo Esposito): “Hey, hey Sal, how come there ain’t no brothers on the wall here?”

Sal, the owner, behind the counter: (Danny Aiello): You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you wanna do.  You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, your step fathers, step mothers, you want, you see? But this is my pizzeria, American Italians on the wall, only.

If the Obama administration can only name envoys who have bona fides handed to it by AIPAC, how does that differ from Sal’s statement: “This is my pizzeria, American Italians on the wall, only?”

The American public, oblivious to what is done in their name and with their money, need to know that Dennis Ross, slated as an envoy to Iran, brings to the table a hard line loyalty to Israel. His picture has been hanging on the State Department pizzeria wall for a long time.  Here is a news story of a recent Ross address to a Jewish audience:

Washington DC–Dennis Ross said the United States should back a cease-fire in Gaza only if it ensures that Hamas “can’t rebuild.”  “We want some stability,” said Ross, a former top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration, in a talk at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md.

“If Hamas is left with the capability to rearm,” he said, then the current conflict will have been “just a prelude” to the next round. He hoped that some sort of “enforcement mechanisms” to restrain the terrorist group could be developed in any kind of truce. —Global News Service of  the Jewish People.

Another recent posting on Mondoweiss is from David Bromwich who teaches literature at Yale. Bromwich has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines.

Bromwich responds to AIPAC favorite Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, which was published  January 7, in the midst of the current Israeli-Hamas conflict. Here is part of Bromwich’s reaction to the column:

. . . [Friedman] does not speak of the facts of the slaughter: the 100-to-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli dead; the bombing of institutions and private houses that were known to be entirely or almost entirely inhabited by civilians. Not one word of pity for the sufferings of Gaza, and not a hint of reproach to Israel. Friedman espouses the righteousness of these killings as a benefit to all parties, whether they realize it or not. If one were looking for evidence that Israel’s special relationship to the U.S. has corroded the moral sense of both countries, one could hardly point to a more finished specimen of the corruption of heart in question. . . .(For the complete Bromwich posting, click here.) 

The future looks dark in the Middle East for any hope of a change we can believe in. But could this Cassandra cry be premature? Maybe the State Department walls will not be completely filled with Sal’s “Italian Americans only.”  Maybe, just maybe, two non AIPAC-certified candidates (both also Jewish) Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, could still join the Obama team.

Aaron David Miller was at Camp David in 2000 as an advisor to Bill Clinton. Miller later wrote critical essays debunking the AIPAC doctrinal belief that Arafat turned down “a generous offer” from Israel.  His picture on the State Department pizzeria wall was put in storage. Even so, Miller, fully aware that the Obama envoy choices are still pending, chose to go bold himself.

He wrote a Newsweek column that speaks bluntly to the need for the new president to get tough with Israel:

Jews worry for a living; their tragic history compels them to do so. In the next few years, there will be plenty to worry about, particularly when it comes to Israel. The current operation in Gaza won’t do much to ease these worries or to address Israel’s longer-term security needs. The potential for a nuclear Iran, combined with the growing accuracy and lethality of Hamas and Hizbullah rockets, will create tremendous concern. Anxiety may also be provoked by something else: an Obama administration determined to repair America’s image and credibility and to reach a deal in the Middle East.

Don’t get me wrong Barack Obama–as every other U.S. president before him—will protect the special relationship with Israel. But the days of America’s exclusive ties to Israel may be coming to an end. Despite efforts to sound reassuring during the campaign, the new administration will have to be tough, much tougher than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush were, if it’s serious about Arab-Israeli peacemaking. . . . (for the entire article, click here…)

The Wall Street Journal has pointed to a broader role for Daniel Kurtzer in the Obama administration:

President-elect Barack Obama may name Daniel Kurtzer, a veteran U.S. diplomat, to the post of special envoy to the Middle East, a senior Israeli diplomatic source told the daily Ha’aretz. Kurtzer has served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt, from 1997 to 2001, and to Israel, from 2001 to 2005. The appointment of Kurtzer, 59, to a post reporting directly to the president instead of to the secretary of state would emphasize the importance Obama places on the regional peace process, Ha’aretz reported.

In one of his final essays, written in 2000, Edward Said reminded described an ongoing harsh reality that continues today in Gaza: ” [t]he cries of Palestinian orphans, sick old women, bereaved communities, and tortured prisoners simply go unheard and unrecorded.” Said had lost patience with talk of “sides” in the conflict. It was time, he wrote:

“to pause and declare indignantly that there is only one side with an army and a country:  the other is a stateless dispossessed population of people without rights or any present way of securing them. . . .

The Obama administration must not tolerate another four years in which the AIPAC, the Israel Lobby–and  media cheerleaders like Friedman–maintain their veto power over US policy in the Middle East.

If we are to have change we can believe in, President-elect Obama must act as boldly on Israel’s role in the Middle East, as he has on our policies on torture and the economy. Nothing less than “the moral sense of both countries” is at stake. 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to Question for Barack Obama on Middle East Envoys: How come there ain’t no brothers on the wall?

  1. Claude says:

    Jim, Good colum on Obama. Hope you read Khalidi’s column in Thursday’s NYT. It’s a reminder of the perfidy of Truman — a great president in many respects — when he handed over Arab territory to Jewish terrorists under Begin and others back in ’48, at least partially as a gift to HST’s old partner in the Kansas City rag trade… All of which brings me to this question: When are we who supported Obama — I had an Obama-Biden poster in my front yard — going to persuade him to adopt at least an even-handed policy toward this terrible Arab-Israeli dispute, which threatens to rip the Middle East apart and ignite a nuclear holocaust?
    Remember these words from that old spiritual and movement song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water but the fire next time.” So, Barack, keep your eyes on the prize, peace that is. Claude

  2. Pauline Coffman says:

    Jim, Thanks for this one. Your movie references prompt me to ask, if Mr. Obama is so willing to bring advisors on board that represent a variety of views on every other subject, why not also where Israeli and Palestinian leaders are concerned? As you point out, “why no brothers on the wall?”

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