Contra Professor Zunes

NCR recently published a “viewpoint” by Professor Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco in which Mr. Zunes criticizes the Obama administration for its policy towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I confess myself somewhat shocked that a professor at a major university could combine so many truly outrageous claims in one small article, so outrageous that it is impossible to attribute them to mere carelessness.

In his second paragraph, Zunes writes, “Though the U.N. has been the arena in which international conflicts -- including those between Israel and its neighbors -- have historically been addressed, the Obama administration insists that this should no longer be the case.” Really? Funny, I don’t recall the thoughtful diplomats at the UN having much to do with the Camp David Accords in 1978, nor with the Oslo Peace Process in the early1990s, nor with the negotiations at Wye River in the late 1990s. What has the UN done to achieve peace in the Holy Land? Nada, zip, niente. And, seeing as Zunes makes a wider claim, that the UN is “the arena in which international conflicts” not just those in the Mideast, have been resolved, do tell? I seem to remember the UN sitting on the sidelines in Bosnia. Has the professor heard of Srebrenica? It was NATO that finally ended the bloodshed in the Balkans. Certainly, most of the important arms control efforts during the Cold War were achieved by bi-lateral negotiations, not at the UN. Whence this claim that the UN has been the arena in which international conflicts have been addressed?

In his third paragraph, Zunes comes closer to the truth but misses its significance. He writes, “Unfortunately, while the leadership of the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is the most moderate leadership the Palestinians have had, the current Israeli government is the most hard-line in that country’s history.” To note that Mahmoud Abbas is moderate by comparison to other Palestinian leaders sets a pretty low bar. More to the point, that moderation has cost Abbas control over half his putative country: Abbas has no control over Gaza where Hamas, unsatisfied with Abbas’ moderation, is in control. As for the current Israeli government, I am no fan of Bibi either, but surely one of the reasons for the ideological complexion of the current Israeli government has to do with the fact that the Palestinians have walked away, repeatedly, from any deal that had a real shot at peace.

Paragraph #4 brings no relief from this tendentious nonsense. Zunes writes, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that Arab East Jerusalem -- the largest Palestinian city and historic heart of Palestinian cultural, economic, religious and academic life -- should be permanently annexed into Israel, as should the Jordan Valley, on the eastern border of Palestine.” First, every Israeli PM since the 1967 War has declared Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel. Second, Zunes must have a narrow sense of history to make the claim that East Jerusalem is the “historic heart of Palestinian cultural, economic, religious and academic life.” Until the first Aliyah, the modern Jewish immigration into Israel, which began in 1881, the population of Jerusalem was about 20,000 people according to most estimates. Some estimates indicate there were more Jews than Muslims; others the reverse. We also might take note of the fact that Jerusalem was not in any way, at this time, the “historic heart” of Palestine because, of course, there was no Palestine. Jerusalem was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

We do know that the British Census of 1922 showed the city home to 33,971 Jews, 13,413 Muslims and 14,669 Christians. There were distinct quarters for the different groups, with much common overlap to be sure. But, it is hard to imagine how a mere 13,413 Muslims could constitute the “historic heart of Palestinian cultural, economic, religious and academic life.” We also know that demography waits for no man, including Yassir Arafat whose long reign of terror finally gave way to efforts at peace without also giving way to any sane sense of how the demographic landscape had changed. According to the most recent census data, Jews make up 65% of the population of Jerusalem and Muslims 32%. These figures include some Palestinian villages that were not part of the pre-1967 city as well. As long as the Palestinians insist on half of Jerusalem, they will never receive a vouchsafed title deed to Nablus and Ramallah. This has been obvious for decades.

But, my personal favorite among Zunes’ other errors is this gem: “U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 -- long seen as the basis of Israeli-Palestinian peace -- calls for security guarantees from Israel’s neighbors as a prerequisite for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Arab territories. However, the Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Abbas and Fayyad, has already agreed to such security guarantees as part of a final agreement, including demilitarization of their new state, the disarming of militias and opening their country to Israeli and international monitors. Meanwhile, there have been virtually no attacks against civilians inside Israel from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority since Abbas became president in 2005.” Hmmm. It is true that Abbas and Fayyad agreed to these things but maybe Zunes did not notice: They couldn’t deliver. Instead of security, Israel got suicide bombers on its buses and in its pizza parlors. Instead of “disarming of militias,” Abbas and Fayyad could not keep half their territory from falling under the control of, well, Hamas is not exactly a militia, it is a gang of terrorists and thugs.

But, the real clincher is the bit about there being “virtually no attacks against civilians inside Israel from areas contolled by the Palestinian Authority since Abbas became president in 2005.” Zunes protects himself from the charge of simple dishonesty with the prepositional phrase "from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.” Gaza, from which many rockets and mortars have rained down upon Israel, doesn’t count because the PA does not control it. But, something else has been going on to protect against attacks on civilians. C’mon, Professor Zunes, you know! The security barrier was being built. My hunch is that Zunes doesn’t think much of the Israeli security barrier but it is the barrier, not the promises of Abbas and Fayyad, that have ended the terror on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Zunes moves on to compare President Obama to the white pastors who urged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to moderation, provoking his exquisite response, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To compare Obama to white apologists for segregation is offensive at every level. But, I would submit that Abbas is no King, and modern day Israel is not the segregated South either. Zunes might be unfamiliar with the large number of white Jews who marched with King, or with King’s close personal contacts with, and reliance upon, Jewish supporters. Dr. King championed the kinds of civil rights that exist in Israel, modified to be sure by certain security concerns to be sure. But can the same be said of her neighbors? If you committed a crime, would you rather go before an Israeli court or a Palestinian or Egyptian one? If you were gay or lesbian, do you think you would be able to be more open about your sexual identity in Tel Aviv or in Gaza? If you are a Christian, do you think you would be safer in Jerusalem or Cairo? There have been attacks against Christian throughout the Middle East, but have there been any churches torched in Israel? If you were a dissident writer, publishing attacks on the government, do you think your right of free expression would be better protected in Israel or in Syria? If you are a woman, do you think you could enjoy greater freedom in Israel or in Saudi Arabia? Zunes’ use of Dr. King’s good name and good cause to justify his anti-Israeli prejudices is shameful.

Zunes concludes with a final bizarre claim. He writes: “It is unlikely that Obama will gain much domestically from his hard-line stance either, given that most people who support the Israeli occupation will presumably vote Republican anyway.” Huh? In case Zunes doesn’t know it, Jews have been a core constituency of the Democratic Party since the New Deal and they remain critical to Obama’s prospects in states like New Jersey and Florida. Yes, certain conservative Republicans have been embracing an over-the-top stance towards Israel, rooted in certain theological beliefs about Israel’s role in the Eschaton. Most Jews I know do not take too much comfort from support rooted in such specifically Christian claims and devoid of any knowledge of Israel. But, they recognize, too, that Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors, and they will not cast anyone’s support aside, even if it is put forward for kooky reasons they do not share.

I do not know whether Professor Zunes is simply ill-informed or if his biases on this subject are so thorough-going he is incapable of discerning the facts. Neither ignorance nor bias is an attribute to applaud in a professor. There is a new found hostility to Israel on the left, something I first discerned while working on a congressional campaign in 2004. It was not exactly anti-Semitism, although sometimes it was that, other times it was very close, and it was always very ugly. When anyone on the left finds themselves espousing positions held by the John Birch Society, they should be alarmed, no? And, anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with the history of the twentieth century (or virtually any other century) should acknowledge there is a moral authority to Jewish alarm regarding those who proclaim a desire to drive Israel into the sea.

Genuine concern fro the plight of the Palestinian people is not advanced by throwing aspersions at Israel. The Palestinian leadership has failed its own people in every regard, and they have done so for decades. Whatever peace may yet emerge in the Holy Land, it will be a hard-won peace on both sides, and lavishing the laurels of moderation on one side while denying any legitmacy to the concerns of the other doesn’t help. Professor Zunes’s article, drenched in ignorance or malice or both, does nothing to advance the cause of peace for anybody, least of all the Palestinians he seeks to champion.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here