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Going Rogue or Staying on Message?

Ambassador’s controversial comments raise questions about admin.

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Ambassador Howard Gutman earlier this year.(Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images)

If you haven’t heard about it yet (some people try to get outdoors on the weekends, yes?), Howard Gutman, our man in Brussels, told a conference on anti-Semitism last week that there is a difference between, on one hand, “traditional anti-Semitism” and, on other, “Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” These were prepared remarks. Gutman knew what he was doing: “I likely will not just say fully what you expected and or maybe hoped to hear,” he prefaced. While it’s not clear whom he blames for the failure to reach peace, it is very clear that he blames that failure for many European Muslims’ “significant anger and resentment and, yes, perhaps sometimes hatred.” This would be an undiplomatic thing to say even if he weren’t a diplomat; you couldn’t give me good enough odds to bet that Gutman will continue as ambassador much longer. (And yes, of course Gutman is Jewish.) Already the White House has responded, “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms,” adding, “there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.” And already many have pounced, arguing that Gutman’s words are actually a useful window into the administration.

They are making this case by pointing to comments Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made last Friday in Washington, in which he urged Israel to “get to the damn table”—negotiate with the Palestinians—and said, “unfortunately, over the past year, we have seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold.” While Panetta did not blame Israel for this situation totally, he did demand it take “bold action” to change things.

So now this is the “Blame Israel First Administration,” according to the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel, which predicates its case on both Gutman’s and Panetta’s words. (“Blame Israel First” is catchy enough, and is of good enough stock—it’s a play on neoconservative godmother Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s “Blame America First”—that it is surely coming soon to a billboard, newspaper, or television near you.) “Ambassador Gutman’s comments were not way out of line with Obama’s worldview,” insisted Bill Kristol, whose many hats include ECI chief. “What the events of recent days emphasize is that the problem is not with one ambassador or with one cabinet secretary. The problem is President Obama.”

There is nothing in Panetta’s comments that goes remotely as far as Gutman’s. Panetta was referring to security and diplomacy, geopolitics; Gutman was referring to ideas and sociology. And yet! I do think (and regular Scroll readers will know how much I hate typing this) that Kristol has a point.

Panetta called on Israel to “reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability,” including Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. This is sloppy at best. And not at its best, it fails to recognize that, in Turkey’s case, Prime Minister Erdogan is more responsible for blowing up that alliance than any other individual, and that Egypt just elected some people whose anti-Semitism does not entirely derive from the failure of Middle East peace.

Moreover, Panetta’s words appear to be just one prong in a larger administration effort to presure Israel. U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro just chastised Israel over the proposed law that would affect foreign funding of non-governmental organizations. And over the weekend Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly made similar comments in an off-the-record session.

The point isn’t that she and Shapiro are wrong—in fact, they’re completely right. The bill is totally heinous; by its supporters’ own admission, it’s literally McCarthyist. That’s why bloggers like me publish lots of items saying so. But these are not bloggers, they are diplomats. And the bill is not nearly as bad as the violations of any number of countries where U.S. envoys tend to keep quiet about such matters, and besides I’m not sure of either the purpose or justification of raising the issue here. I fail to see how they think this push is going to help them get what they want, whether it’s Israel at the damn table (where’s the leverage? where’s the opportunity?) or it’s re-election stateside (you’re just making these people’s jobs easier).

I don’t think the substance of Ambassador Gutman’s spiel represents the administration’s substance. But I think its style—this faux-brave, off-the-cuff, lowbrow intellectualizing—is representative: it’s counterproductive, and the questions it invites about what is driving it are valid, particularly coming only weeks after Dennis Ross, long perceived as Israel’s strongest supporter in the White House, announced he was leaving.

A final caveat: Clinton’s lodestar has always been her strident feminism, and where she reportedly focused on Israeli women’s potential plight should the country become more religious, the realpolitik side of me cedes to the idealist side, and I applaud her. “Clinton … noted she was shocked at the fact that some Jerusalem buses have assigned separate seating areas for women. ‘It’s reminiscent of Rosa Parks,’ she said.” Tell me she’s wrong. You can’t.

‘Jew-Hate Stems From Conflict’ [Ynet]
Thinking About Anti-Semitism in Europe [Belgium Embassy]
White House Distances Itself From U.S. Ambassador to Belgium [JTA]
Defense Chief Says Israel Must Amend Arab Ties [NYT]
ECI Statement on Panetta and Gutman [Emergency Committee for Israel]
U.S. Warns Israel Over Bill to Limit Foreign Funding to NGOs [Haaretz]
Earlier: The Peace Process Is Like a Doornail

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I dropped by Commentary on the way over here and so far as the segregated seats are concerned, they claim the policy was found to be illegal. Is that not correct?

By the way, Hillary and that guy she was married to always chart their course according to where they see the political winds blowing–not diplomatic, but political, so I think attributing her words to her feminist principles is a charitable interpretation.

Wow. What a big deal the whole world is making about 3 bus lines that run through Mea shaarim and have been declared illegal. Meanwhile Obama visits S Arabia where women aren’t even allowed to deive and bows to the king. As for all these remarks from the administration leave aside if you are pro or ant-Israel, it just shows that they have absolutely no clue as to what is going on in the middle east. Their incompetence is simply astounding.

David Horne says:

The Rosa Parks analogy is in fact wrong. And Israel is already subject to too many faulty and vicious analogies to add a fresh one to the pile. Rosa Parks (and all African-Americans, not just women) were required to sit in the back of all buses in cities in the South as part of a systemic discrimination against an entire race by an entire society. SOME Jerusalem buses that serve SOME specific neighborhods, have separate seating for women AND men, due to the religious practices of some ultra-Orthodox. While this is uncomfortable and unfamiliar to non-Israelis and the non-Orthodox, it is a reflection of accomodation to the religious and moral strictures of a sub-group, rather than the expression of a broad system of discrimination against all women. And in fact, Israel is arguably more open to female advancement in some ways than the US. So yes Marc, you are in fact wrong. (And why is Hilary Clinton not using valuable airtime to gain Saudi women the right to drive a car, or addres the other broad societal-wide discriminations against women that is rife in the Arab and Muslim world?)

Dennis says:

Carl:
I don’t like the idea that Americans bow to any foreign leader, whether it’s the Saudi king of the queen of England. But please don’t pawn this off as one of Clinton’s or Obama’s signature failures.
It’s not too hard to find photos of GWBush holding hands and kissing the Saudi king. And you can find pics of Condi Rice wearing a head-covering while meeting some Middle Eastern leader (maybe the Saudi king as well).
I would prefer that American officials take the view that we do not recognize the supposedly deity-given rights of kings, and refuse to show that kind of obeisance to them.
But that’s not a Clinton/Obama failing. It’s long standing procedure that our officials have followed for probably decades.

MH8169 says:

Why has Mrs. Clinton ignored the crap in Saudia Arabia i.e, women driving cars. I am sick and tired by this sorry filled angst by the current WH adminsitration. Israel is a democracy and her “warts” are always up and center. It is real easy to criticize the only true democratic country in the ME and ignore the Islamists and dictators of the the Arab world.

Beatrix says:

We Jews were treated terribly in Europe with pogroms, prejudice and the Holocaust, certainly much worse than the Palestinians have been, yet we produced great people with great achievements. What have the Palestinians done? They say they’ve been in Israel for 1 million years, but what have they accomplished beyond a whiny adolescent complaining about Israel the big mommy and daddy country that won’t let them go. This has attracted the support of the adolescents of the world who have their own parental issues.

Abbas says whatever you want to hear. He’s not going to sit down to peace talks because this is a good way to get killed in the Mideast and he wants to retire soon with his neck intact.

Obama has increased Israel’s security because he wants to remove American troops from the Mideast and Israel is going to become our proxy. He will always support Israel at election time because much of his campaign coffers are filled by Jews.

In the battle between Turkey and Israel, Turkey is absolutely and positively in the wrong. Even the UN pretty much agrees with that. Yet, losing Turkey’s alliance is so foolish and harmful that Israel has to find a way to mend fences, even if she has to unfairly eat a little crow.

Israel is the winner of the Mideast wars. She’s small, but because of this, she is powerful. She also has America’s support, which is still the world power. Israel has to be the one to reach out to Abbas in such a way that he can’t refuse to talk to her. She’s the big guy in this battle. She can afford to be daring, and she can afford to make concessions

Marc, I criticize you sometimes when I perceive you to be letting your partisan political affiliation distort your perception of the Jewish people’s best interests. So it’s only fair that I commend you when I see you resisting the temptation–a temptation that political partisans of all stripes feel, I’m sure–to do so. Thank you for this post.

The function of a diplomat is to represent his country’s interests to the country to which he is accredited. i do not believe that legislation in the Knesset is appropriate for interference or comment by an Ambassador TO Israel. It is not the business of the U.S. or any other country what domestic Israeli legislation concerns. Shapiro and Clinton are not right. They are sticking their noses into what is not their concern.

probably the most knowledgable ambassador that we have in Europe, knows the entire program, is a true Israel supporter and the rest of it is just crap.

Good for you Marc. I’m impressed to watch your evolution these past months into a well-reasoned, thoughtful commentator on the left regarding Israel. You are a rare voice of nuance amid the knee-jerk Israel criticism that prevails among self-described “progressives” (and yes, I mean you, Liel).

Jeffrey says:

I read Gutman’s speech word-for-word, and I believe there has been an huge, and well orchestrated overreaction to a non-issue.
Gutman describes a phenomenon that we can certainly see on the opposite side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that is, the rise in Jewish hatred of Muslims, in Israel and around the world. Such Islamaphobia takes form in the attitude of those Israeli soldiers who wore T-Shirts depicting Palestinian civilians in cross hairs; “Price Tag” attacks by Jewish settlers on innocent Palestinian farmers, etc. Many Jews — even on the left — explain such behavior as the result of years of war and terrorism experienced by Israel at the hands of its Arab enemies. There is truth to this explanation — would Jewish attitudes and behavior towards Arabs and Muslims change for the better if peace were to come to the MIddle East? Of course.
In the case of both antisemitism and Islamaphobia/Anti-Arab prejudice, there must be some kernal of bias within that needs to be awakened and exacerbated by external conditions. This is perhaps the one major concept that was missing from Gutman’s speech — his failure to identify a pre-dispositon to antisemitism in many, if not most, Muslims, due to religious training and cultural traditions that have viewed Jews (and Christians) as less equal to those who practice Islam. The truth is, those seeds of hatred and prejudice exist in all of us.

Andrew E. Mathis says:

Truly remarkable. You both misquoted the ambassador (apparently, this trend began with Ha’aretz, which attributed to him a summary of the speech published in Yediot Ahronot the day before) AND linked to the speech’s prepared text, which DEMONSTRABLY does not say what you attribute him saying.

I am increasingly seeing a speech that was perhaps not measured enough in its language being turned into something out of Der Stürmer by an Israeli mass media truly bent on ruining the career of anyone who dare say that Israel has any role to play in the instability of the Middle East or of the propensity of the Arab world to be hostile to it.

No, anti-Semitism is not excusable in any context. However, we all, as human beings, tend to demonize entire groups based on the actions of the few. This is also faulty thinking, to be sure; however, it is a demonstrably HUMAN reaction. The Arab and Muslim world would do well to use greater nuance in addressing matters regarding Israel and Jews at large. Meanwhile, Israel would, in fact, do well to consider that its actions have repercussions, for better or worse.

Hershl says:

You are a blogger?

You could have fooled me.

Ron Lewenberg says:

McCarthy was correct about communist subversion. And foreigners are funding NGOs in Israel to conduct lawfair and propoganda against the state.
The US has a long standing law that foreign lobbyists must declare themselves as such and show their funding sources. Is this really so bad?

Brian S says:

Agreed with Andrew above

This is sloppy reporting… The “Muslim hatred” quote doesn’t appear anywhere in the Ambassador’s speech… And it’s apparent that you haven’t actually read it. It was thoughtful and even-handed. It’s exactly the kind of criticism that should be encouraged today.

Clinton’s not wrong, merely, ah, selective. She was much less concerned with ultra-Orthodox gender segregation while she was campaigning for the Senate in upstate New York. http://articles.latimes.com/2001/feb/24/news/mn-29756

THERE WAS A TIME LONG AGO BEFORE TRACY WHEN IT WAS A PLEASURE TO RECEIVE AND READ THE TABET. THIS BUM HAS GONE AND DID IT AGAIN. ASKED THAT I SAYS HE IS WRONG. OK MORON, YOU ARE WRONG. NOT JUST WRONG BUT AS WRONG A A MONON CAN BE. LET IT BE KNOWN THAT WHAT HILLARY SAID HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ROSA PARK. EVEN STRETCHING ONE AND COMPARING IT WITH THE OTHER THERE IS NO RESEMBLANCE. HILLARY LOVES TO STAND UP OR DOWN AS LONG AS SHE RECEIVED GOOD PUBLICITY AMD WILL ACCEPT IT FROM EVEN THE SEWER WHICH IS REPRESENTATIVE OF MARK TRACY.
TRACU. LOOK FOR ANOTHER JOB OR I WILL DISCONTINUE TABLET. I CANNOT READ YOUR IDIOTIC OPINIONS AND COMPARISONS ONE MORE TIME.

Beatrix says:

Young people and old people often disagree. The young usually understand today’s world and its electronic toys better than the old do, and older people often have perspective on today’s issues by virtue of having lived long enough to be able to personally relate today’s actions to yesterdays successes and failures.

But to get so angry with a young person’s opinion that you want to silence him is to deny your own people’s future.

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Going Rogue or Staying on Message?

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