Good: Cohen Calls Hamas a “political phenomenon” in the Palestinian National Fabric; Bad: Freeman Withdraws

By James M. Wall

Back in the Israel Lobby’s halcyon days, could you imagine a New York Times leading columnist writing the following paragraphs? And keeping his job?

Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.”


But that is what Roger Cohen wrote in a column entitled, “Middle East Reality Check”.  Hallelujah, indeed. But wait, there is more:

Precisely the same thing could be said of Hamas in Gaza. It is a political phenomenon, part of the national fabric there.

One difference is that Hezbollah is in the Lebanese national unity government, whereas Hamas won the free and fair January 2006 elections to the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority, only to discover Middle Eastern democracy is only democracy if it produces the right result.

The United States should follow the British example. It should initiate diplomatic contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah. The Obama administration should also look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements and engineer a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

And there is much, much more in Cohen’s remarkable column. As he discusses the Hamas situation and the need for a diplomatic outreach from the US to Hamas, Cohen offers some harsh facts and a personal testimony:

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. . . .

Israel Lobby discipline has broken down. As a current example, this much piling on to Charles Freeman’s NIC appointment would never have been tolerated in the Lobby’s halcyon days. Senator Charles Schumer (NY-D) forgot that no conversation goes unnoticed in the days of the internet.

Schumer’s friendly chat with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would once have been just a private exchange between old friends. No more; their discussion was revealed by blogger Greg Sargent in a conversation I cited in an earlier piece here on Freeman. 

The internet is filled with critics of Israel who do not quake in fear that they will be sent immediately by the Lobby into the outer darkness of journalist unemployment. There are also columnists like Roger Cohen who lack the same fear. 

Senator Schumer apparently does not realize that Israel’s conduct is now being noted, openly, by New York Times columnists. Of course, little of Cohen’s candor has reached the Times news columns, where the Freeman struggle has yet to attract any significant notice. Nor has the fight over Freeman entered the purified pro-Israeli air of columnists like Tom Freidman and David Brooks. 

But in time, it will, especially now that a tough minded diplomat like Freeman has been forced to withdraw his name from consideration as the NIC chairman. The Lobby won this one but at what a cost.  The Lobby was responsible for driving Freeman from the field through the pressure of leading Democrats like Schumer, and then, in what may have been the final blow from the obsequious Joe Liberman. 

Politico reported late Tuesday afternoon that Freeman had requested his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed.” Blair’s office said in a statement, “Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”  

Charles W. Freeman Jr., the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had been praised by allies and by the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, as a brilliant, iconoclastic analyst. Critics said he was too hard on Israel and too soft on China, and blasted him for taking funding from Saudi royals. . . 

. . . The withdrawal came after Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) grilled Blair at a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing Tuesday. Lieberman cited his “concern” about “statements that [Freeman] has made that appear either to be inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China.”  

It is important to remember that this is the same Joe Lieberman who traveled recently to Israel to embrace Israel’s racist political leader Avigdor Lieberman as someone the US could  work with as Israel’s foreign minister, a position the Israeli Liberman covets. Joe Liberman loves the Israeli Liberman but has no use for the American Charles Freeman. Is Joe a true patriot, or does he have other loyalties that drive him?  Just asking. 

Senators like Schumer and Lieberman were once expected to remain in the shadows while doing their dirty work on Israel’s behalf. But the times, “they are a changin”, as Max Blumenthal, a blogger for the Daily Beast, notes in citing a 19-year-old internal AIPAC memo, written by Larry Rosen, then AIPAC’s director of foreign policy issues. 

In a recent posting, Blumenthal points to a June 13, 1999 Washington Post article, ” The Lobbyists From AIPAC, Girding for Battle in the New World” , written by Lloyd Grove:

. . . many U.S. Jews are uncomfortable with such talk, and see the specter of antisemitism behind every public reference to the “Jewish lobby,” as AIPAC is frequently called by its opponents. Rep. Tim Valentine (D-N.C.), whose House amendment to cut the $ 650 million in extra aid for Israel received a mere 24 votes, blamed the Jewish community for its lopsided defeat.

“I do plan to find an opportunity to talk to my Jewish friends,” the congressman vowed, “and say, ‘Do you realize the impression that this thing makes, when you come down with full force, all the strength that you have, for a few bucks? My God, what does that say?’ ” Asked what it said, Valentine responded, “I don’t know. You know what I mean.”

Groves concludes with a reminder of the code of conduct then expected from AIPAC (remember, this was in 1991):

Understandably, perhaps, AIPAC prefers to operate outside the spotlight. “A lobby is like a night flower,” AIPAC’s director of foreign policy issues, Steven Rosen, once wrote in an internal memo. “It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

What went wrong in the assault on Ambassador Freeman was the lack of discipline among AIPAC operatives. Blumenthal concludes that “while AIPAC has attempted to avoid the appearance of being involved in any way in the attacks on Freeman, Rosen has taken a leading role. In assuming such a prominent part, he has violated his own rule.”

Larry Rosen will have to live with the fact that he was the catalyst who brought abut the Lobby’s “overreach moment”, that moment in 2009 when the public, and increasingly, the media, began to wake up to the fact that the Lobby is not the Sheriff of US policy in the Middle East. This is  how change happens: first, the Brits, then the American public, followed, ever so slowly, by the media, and then, God Willing, the US Congress.  The Lobby won this one, but the internet struggle revealed an audacity in the Lobby which it once managed to keep under wraps.

Here is how Andrew Sullivan described Rosen’s role in this fiasco:

The story was broken by Laura Rozen and her report on February 19 at 10.36 am is very dry and factual. In fact, it doesn’t seem to presage any controversy. Then came the three fire alarm from Steve Rosen, who has since been a clearing house for any and all attacks. Rosen is very candid about the reasons for his believing this appointment is “alarming”:

This is a profoundly disturbing appointment, if the report is correct. Freeman is a strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time the state of Israel was born. His views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship, not the top CIA position for analytic products going to the President of the United States.

Rosen followed up with a second post a day later focusing entirely on the Israel question – and arguing simply that someone with Freeman’s views must be barred from a high-level job in the US government. Ben Smith wrote a piece the next day, “A Test For The Israeli Lobby”, in which the entire controversy was about Israel:

A well-placed pro-Israel source says there’s “no amount of good will” that would soften reaction to that appointment because “they might as well have appointed Bandar.” 

Will the US intelligence community continue the Bush doctrine of shaping foreign intelligence in a direction to please Israel? Was the tragic mistake of Iraq not enough? L’affaire Freeman was a victory for the Israel Lobby. It is a costly defeat for the well being of the American people.

Update on Freeman’s withdrawal:

Ambassador Freedom issued a lengthy personal statement after his withdrawal as NIC chairman. His entire statement is an eloquent call for the public to address the overreaching of the Israel Lobby. To read the statement in full, click here. Here is an excerpt:

The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful  lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East.  The tactics of the Israel Lobbyplumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.  The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution ofpolitical correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.

There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel.  I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel.  It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so.  This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.

The outrageous agitation that followed the leak of my pending appointment will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues.  I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government. 

How does the withdrawal of Freeman from the NIC appointment reflect upon President Obama’s ability to stand up to Israel, which, the last time we checked, is still a foreign government? Will this rejection of Freeman strengthen Obama’s resistance to the Lobby? Or is Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan correct in believing that Obama will make no effort to confront the Lobby again?  We soon will find out.

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 Good: Cohen Calls Hamas a “political phenomenon” in the Palestinian National Fabric; Bad: Freeman Withdraws

  1. Harris Fawell says:

    Wow! It seems like national politics knows no bounds to stop Freeman from the chair of the NIC. Makes me realize anew why I left the US Congress after 14 years. I hope Obama won’t give up in trying to bring some objectivity to America’s relations with Israel.

  2. Pingback: The Times Wakes Up While Schumer Says He Helped the White House Do the Right Thing « Wallwritings

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