Greg Sheridan Lost In The Middle East


When I first saw Greg Sheridan’s op-ed piece in this Saturday’s Australian, I burst out laughing, because it made me visualise a cappuccino froth maker — he must have been frothing with rage when he wrote this:

"Barack Obama’s anti-Israel jihad is one of the most irresponsible policy lurches by any modern American president. It rightly earns Obama the epithet of the US president least sympathetic to Israel in Israel’s history. Jimmy Carter became a great hater of Israel, but only after he left office."

Sheridan then goes on to allege that Obama is out to make himself popular in the Arab world, and even with Iran, while the American population is turning against him. To Sheridan, "beating up on Israel is the cheapest trick in the book". This is an argument (if that is the right term) that starts from the position that there is nothing going on in Israeli politics that is beyond the pale.

In fact, the change in the US is not Obama’s alone but part of broader sea change in the US establishment, and even in sections of the pro-Israel lobby who realise that the game is up for Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and that Israel is in the dumps. Israel will no longer have an open cheque-book or endorsement for its actions as was the case in the past.

Writing a piece like this, Sheridan seems unaware that Obama’s stand is increasingly being endorsed in the serious US media, including by the New York Times, which said in a recent editorial:

"Many Israelis find Mr. Obama’s willingness to challenge Israel unsettling. We find it refreshing that he has forced public debate on issues that must be debated publicly for a peace deal to happen. He must also press Palestinians and Arab leaders just as forcefully.

"Questions from Israeli hard-liners and others about his commitment to Israel’s security are misplaced. The question is whether Mr. Netanyahu is able or willing to lead his country to a peace deal. [Netanyahu] grudgingly endorsed the two-state solution. Does he intend to get there?"

This crisis in the US-Israel relationship has, of course, come up around Israel’s plans to go ahead with a large number of building projects in East Jerusalem. One of the biggest problems with Sheridan’s piece is the way he tries to argue that these projects are of little or no significance. If this is an honest mistake, then Sheridan is apparently blind to what is happening on the ground, despite his visits to Israel and his many close ties to the "official" Australian Israel lobby which toes the line set by the Israeli administration.

As a significant example, Sheridan claims that new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem are parts of established Jewish neighbourhoods. According to him, "these are mostly neighbourhoods, as Netanyahu pointed out this week, which are five minutes from the Knesset and a couple of blocks beyond the 1949 armistice line". But they are not — in fact, they are far from that.

Sheridan’s errors here are serious, serving as they do to give readers an entirely mistaken sense of just what this new building drive means, in a city where every inch of the place is layered by politics and division, and a just resolution of the "Jerusalem question" is essential if a future peace is to last.

First, Sheikh Jarrah, where new Jewish apartments are being built, is quite a distance from the Knesset. It’s also a well-established Arab suburb — though it is close to the old armistice area (which has now been cleared away with a wide road to deliberately divide the city).

Second, in a city built on hills, the notion of "a couple of blocks" to explain away political problems is simply wrong: central Jerusalem is a city of hills and historically significant neighbourhoods, far from what Sheridan thinks is some sort of suburban blandness. Since 1967, Arab Jerusalem has been besieged by Jewish developments.

Third, yes, the city is not simply a Jewish West and an Arab East. There are also old Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem — a case can be made that the hillside village of Silwan is historically Jewish (settled by Yemenite Jews in the 19th century and evacuated in 1939). But to "re-Judaize" Silwan would be to set off even more violent confrontations.

Fourth, Sheridan seems to be getting his information on Netanyahu’s say-so — but with the PM’s track record on these matters, what self-respecting journalist would want to believe anything that Bibi Netanyahu says?

The reality is that every attempt to encroach on endangered Palestinian communities in Jerusalem (already discriminated against when it comes to city services, despite being tax-payers) only makes the path to a negotiated peace harder; more deeply mires the city in anger and communal division; and makes future joint-governance of the city — a possibility discussed in the Oslo accords — even more fraught.

If the Israeli Government and other authorities had any sense, they would cease such new building, and stop enclosing Arab villages around the city. They need to focus on developing existing Jewish neighbourhoods and be prepared to negotiate the administrative and population future of those built since 1967. This will be difficult, but not impossible to do, particularly if the city becomes a shared future capital of two countries.

It is a tragedy that the city’s districts are so historically divided, but as long as Arabs don’t have the right to settle in Jewish areas, or the right to claim lost property after 1948, it is pretty provocative of nationalist Jews to move into current Arab neighbourhoods. This is especially the case since the Arab presence has already been so much reduced by Jewish expansion since 1967, with wholesale building and changes of street names to make it appear that neighbourhoods were always Jewish.

A commentator like Sheridan needs to realise that this is a story about more than just "a couple of blocks". He would do well to take a close look at the stories of the real families who have lost their property. If you can find the DVD of the film Bayit [in Hebrew]by Amos Gitai, about the history of one Arab home on the edge of what is today the very upscale Emek Refayim area (today no. 14 Dor veDorshav Street) in Jerusalem, you will see how sensitive the issue is.

Sheridan apparently lacks the insight or willingness to acknowledge the past ownership of magnificent houses like the one Gitai’s film focuses on, even though it’s obvious that these houses weren’t built by their current occupants. Many of the houses in Emek Refayim still have Arabic inscriptions with building dates and names of families above their lintels. The Arab residents were not the stereotype of poor landless fellahin (peasants), but very middle class, educated, and often English-speaking Palestinians. It’s all very discomforting to those who try to justify the present arrangements.

The descendants of these families are likely to make a very strong claim for compensation for their property losses, and it is crazy for Israel to engage in further encroachments that will make reconciliation even harder to achieve. This is a city that, like it or not, is home to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in all their chequered variations. In the future, the long and complex process of reconciliation and recompense may be the way out of this mess, with justifiable claims on both sides.

Consequently, current settlement activity in East Jerusalem has all the subtlety of the proverbial red rag to a bull. When Sheridan says that "no serious analyst could believe that such building is a roadblock to peace", or that the building activity can’t be considered as part of any current settlement freeze on the West Bank, he is so obviously wrong that he further undermines his claim to be a serious analyst himself.

It’s also possible that Sheridan was fuming so hard that he didn’t re-read his piece before he filed it. I notice that he uses the "no-serious-analyst" line a second time, where he dismisses a point that many, many serious analysts actually do make: that Israel’s behaviour puts US troops in the region at greater risk. Apparently Sheridan hasn’t noticed that Obama’s apparent change of tack is not "pro-Islam", but is merely a recognition that non-resolution of this issue favours extremism and pushes the region to war. As the Nation put it this week:

"This year [US-Israel unity] … was challenged from unusual quarters, when Gen. David Petraeus, Centcom commander, told the Senate that the Israel-Palestine conflict — and widespread anger in the Middle East over Washington’s favouritism for Israel — is hampering regional partnerships and fuelling recruitment by Islamist extremists. And while Biden delivered the usual boilerplate about standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Israel in his public remarks there, in private he was harsh; according to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he told Netanyahu, ‘What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace’."

Here General Petraeus is doing what former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty did once in acknowledging that fighting in Iraq increased the risk of terrorism in Australia, i.e. he is simply stating the obvious. Keelty’s was an admission that was forbidden by the Howard government, and his commonsense statement was rebuked accordingly. Similarly now, Sheridan ignores Petraeus and insists on maintaining the politically convenient fiction that overlooks Israel’s detrimental influence on US interests in the region.

Anyone who loves the extraordinary beauty and diversity of central Jerusalem — a place I have lived in and known for over 35 years — must deplore Israeli attempts to turn it into a monocultural wasteland at the expense of other communities’ rights. That kind of action makes a mockery of Israel’s claims to be a country for all its citizens (including those of Jerusalem, which it currently governs), and of its claims that it behaves equitably to the non-citizens over which it has military power.

Israel, as a rich and diverse country which has the potential to contribute so much to the region, is increasingly pushing itself into a corner in which peace is impossible. It is also alienating itself from many Jews, such as myself, who care deeply for its future as a democracy.

Democracy, security and reconciliation are not impossible, but Israel needs to change direction in response to the US, and to the many unambiguous signals that the time is right for a peace settlement, not only with the Palestinian Authority, but with other countries in the region.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.