Friday afternoon I was up in the rolling Dutchess County hunt country around Bard College meeting with students about their senior projects when a reporter from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz called. We chatted for a while, and today I see that the reporter, Chemi Shalev, is running a story based on the interview on his blog. You can read it all here.
As someone who both writes for the press and gets interviewed by the press, I have to say that the experience is sometimes a little weird. The kind of journalism I do is mostly commentary; I’m not usually trying to make news or advance a story. When daily newspaper journalists interview me, especially on topical issues, their perspective is often different. In the Ha’aretz interview, it felt as if the reporter wanted me to say something critical of either Prime Minister Netanyahu or Aipac or President Obama because that, in the Israeli context, might be news: American Expert Blasts Israeli PM or whatever.
That’s not really what I want to do; if you read the interview carefully you may be able to see how the reporter is trying to nail me down and how I keep trying — not always successfully — to avoid something that would look like I’m either attacking or defending either a person like Prime Minister Netanyahu or an institution like Aipac. In fact I think they both are sometimes right and sometimes wrong; they are also both very often misunderstood so that they get both praised and blamed for the wrong things.
In general, I track a little to the left of the Netanyahu government on issues like settlements; while I understand both the Zionist and national security reasons for the settlement movement, on balance I think the settlements (and especially the more remote and ideologically driven ones) are a minus for Israel rather than a plus. I also think that America’s interests are better served when Israel shows more flexibility at the bargaining table than Prime Minister Netanyahu often displays. Those are my personal views, and they haven’t changed much since the 1980s. They make a lot of sense to me from an American point of view; perhaps if I were an Israeli, I’d think differently.
What I wanted to say about the two leaders, and what I hope came through in the interview is this: President Obama had been poorly advised and made some bad calls in 2011; he seems to have learned from that experience and managed Netanyahu’s most recent visit much more effectively. Netanyahu also seems to understand that his goal isn’t scoring points against President Obama in some kind of contest. With both leaders having a better idea how to proceed, the 2012 visit went much more smoothly and more business got done than a year ago.
More generally, I tried to make the point that the Israeli goal isn’t and shouldn’t be to manipulate US political rivalries to bring “pro-Israel” Republicans to power. First, I doubt very much that Israel could achieve such a thing. Second, not just in Israel US relations but in any international relationship, you want to have strong relations with all the major political forces in another country. It’s a strategic defeat for Israel if the Israeli alliance becomes a party question in the US, just as the US doesn’t want our foreign allies to be torn domestically over relations with the US. This is simple IR 101, it’s not a criticism of anybody in Israel or the US. The Republicans might want to make Israel a partisan issue in the US as a way of suggesting that the Democrats are anti-Israel and therefore weak, pro-Arab and un-American, but that is something no smart Israeli diplomat would want to touch.
It’s complicated to write opinion journalism in your own country; it’s even harder when it spills over into other countries. I’m not particularly partisan in American politics; I remain registered as a Democrat but much of what Democrats do doesn’t enthuse me and since I’m not interested in becoming deputy assistant undersecretary or even Grand Poohbah in some future administration I see no reason to assume a partisanship that I don’t feel.
When it comes to other countries, I am even less interested in taking stands. I have no idea how I would vote in an Israeli election, for example. I don’t follow the ins and outs of Israeli domestic politics well enough to know whose tax policies or water policies or housing policies I would support. In French politics, I have no idea whether I’d vote for Sarkozy or Hollande in the upcoming election; again, what I’m interested in about French politics as an American bears only a tangential relationship to the things that matter most about France to the French.
Back when I was the Kissinger fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, this was a much bigger problem. People overseas (especially in countries without a well developed think tank culture) often assumed that somebody from such a well known and well funded organization was speaking at least semi-officially. I got into the habit of walking on eggshells when it came to talking about foreign leaders and foreign politics and when, as I usually do a couple of times a year, I go on lecture tours for the State Department, I try to be very careful about taking sides in other peoples’ disputes. (I’ve been doing these tours since Bill Clinton was in the White House, and stepped up the commitment after 9/11. It’s not a partisan program and I try to help foreigners understand American politics and policy rather than telling them what I think is right or wrong about the administration in power. These days, I tell them to look on the blog if they want to know my personal opinions.)
So an interview like this is a tricky thing for me; I’m more comfortable when reporters are seeking me out to give them historical or political background about events rather than making snap judgments about who is right, who is wrong, and who is to blame. But Israel is a very political place and this is an unusually fraught time there, so I understand why Chemi asked the questions he did. Ha’aretz is generally considered to be an anti-Netanyahu paper; that made the whole dance a little trickier.
Making things worse is that to the (very) limited extent my name has been dragged into Israeli politics, Prime Minister Netanyahu started it. He is reported to have read from one of my blog posts (this one) at a cabinet meeting following his 2011 trip to Washington; that means that any criticisms I would have of him now might be especially tasty for his d0mestic critics. I wasn’t interesting in supporting him then; I am not interested in attacking him now.
Someday maybe I will perfect the art of compressing incredibly complex ideas into elegant sound bites so that my responses to newspaper interviews will be gnomic and paradoxical: like Yoda talking to Luke Skywalker or the Buddha addressing his disciples. Henry Kissinger seems particularly good at this, but the oracle at Delphi nailed it better than anyone before or since. “Let Athens trust in her wooden walls.” “If you go to war, a great empire will be destroyed.”
Until I get in closer touch with my inner oracle, I’ll continue to give interviews from time to time, but hope that people who really want to know what I think — in all its frustrating ambivalence or, as the French and John Kerry would put it, nuance — will follow me here at the blog or check out my books and my articles.