An open letter to NY Times columnist Roger Cohen

Click here for Roger Cohen’s response and a follow-up

An open letter to NY Times columnist Roger Cohen
in response to his article reproduced in the opposite column

From Maurice Ostroff October 5, 2010

Dear Mr. Cohen,

The provocative title of your September 23, NY Times article “A Test of Israel’s Character”, prompts me to ask why you believe that, among all the parties involved in the mid-East peace talks, only Israel’s character is being tested?

The bias in the title could be ignored were it not reinforced by your recommendation to President Obama in the same article, to break some bones and your belief, expressed during a public debate in Doha that, like a naughty child, Israel should be severely spanked. This leads me to ask whether you reserve this tough aggressive approach for Israel only, or whether you would ever suggest that Zimbabwe, Sudan, the Taliban or even Ahmedinijad deserve to be spanked or that their bones be broken.

You may recall that when you spoke at a symposium in Israel a short while ago, I asked from the floor whether we could treat your views on Israel as unbiased in view of your call for spanking Israel during that Doha debate. The motion before the debate was “This House believes Barack Obama is too weak to make peace in the Middle East”. Phillip Weiss spoke for, and you spoke against, the motion “.

As you replied to me that you could not recall using those words, I quote from a verbatim transcript of the debate.

Well I think The United States has to take that adult [Israel] across its lap and give it a spanking. And he’s not doing it.

Roger Cohen, would you agree with that?

I think that’s what we’re seeing, I think we’re seeing that right now before our eyes. It might not be as severe a spanking as most people in the audience would like to see”

The complete transcript may be viewed on the BBC site at

It is interesting that although you and Weiss were on opposite sides, you found common ground in agreeing that Israel deserved a spanking.

I also refer to your categorical statement that unlike Netanyahu, Abbas is serious about peace and I ask how you reconcile this view with his obstinate refusal to meet with Netanyahu during nine months of the building freeze and his reluctant agreement to engage in indirect talks only when the moratorium was about to expire.

Referring again to the title of your article, will you perhaps agree that Abbas’ character and his seriousness about peace are more seriously under test than Israel’s in view of his failure to respond to Ehud Olmert’s astounding offer of 98 percent of the West Bank, along with a promise to remove all settlers over the border as reported in Al-Manar TV of August 12, 2008?

Mr Abbas himself confirmed that he received and rejected this offer in an interview with Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post of May 29, 2009. The following excerpt of what Diehl wrote cannot be ignored if a serious attempt is made to understand the complex Mid-east pace process

“In our meeting Wednesday, Abbas acknowledged that Olmert had shown him a map proposing a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank — though he complained that the Israeli leader refused to give him a copy of the plan. He confirmed that Olmert “accepted the principle” of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees — something no previous Israeli prime minister had done — and offered to resettle thousands in Israel. In all, Olmert’s peace offer was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of Bush or Bill Clinton; it’s almost impossible to imagine Obama, or any Israeli government, going further.

Abbas turned it down. “The gaps were wide,” he said.

Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze — if he did, his center-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. “It will take a couple of years,” one official breezily predicted. Abbas rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession — such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees.

Instead, he says, he will remain passive. “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” he said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life.” In the Obama administration, so far, it’s easy being Palestinian”.

Further doubt was cast on Abbas’ seriousness about peace by co-founder of Fatah, Farouq Kadoumi, when he told journalist Lamis Andoni that Abbas’ acceptability to the West would “spare Fatah a right on collision with Israel and America while giving Fatah a chance to recover from the high costs, in terms of losses of lives and leaders who ended up in Israeli jails, after the Second Intifada”. (Al Jazerra September 1, 2010)

In the face of your apparent prejudiced view of Israel as demonstrated in many of your articles, it is difficult to accept your general views as balanced and unbiased. For instance, in your fine article of September 20, 2010, “Democracy Still Matters”, you wrote: “Democracies seemed blocked, as in Belgium, or corrupted, as in Israel, or parodies, as in Italy, or paralyzed, as in the Netherlands”. Although Israel unfortunately has its share of corruption, it is certainly not the defining characteristic of Israel’s democracy. Rather it is the proportional representation voting system which though fairer than the “winner takes all” system in the USA and Britain, nevertheless creates multi-party problems.

Examination of the facts shows conclusively that Israel is doing more to act against corruption than many other Western countries. For example, former Ehud Olmert’s position as PM did not protect him from being indicted for corruption, whereas Jacques Chirac who was dogged by allegations of corruption and nepotism since 1997 was protected by presidential immunity.

On Transparency International’s corruption scale, Israel at number 32 ranks above 150 other countries, including Portugal, Jordan. Czech Republic, Poland, Brazil, Lebanon and Syria, none of whom you regard as characteristically corrupt. In the circumstances, I trust you will acknowledge that your damaging allegation that Israeli democracy is characterized by corruption is totally unjustified.

In a September 24, 2008 article in the Guardian the executive director of Transparency International was quoted as saying that public confidence in political office in Britain has been eroded by the ‘cash-for-honors’ affair and the grudging exposures of MPs’ expenses and that Britain had a wretched and woeful record in prosecuting business executives for paying bribes to foreign politicians and officials to win contracts. He said this was epitomized by the government’s decision to drop the police investigation into allegations that BAE, Britain’s biggest arms company, paid bribes to Saudi royals. The Department for Business said there was an increasing number of UK investigations into foreign bribery, with 20 live cases and almost 50 preliminary enquiries ongoing.

And of course one cannot avoid your own backyard in the USA with the ongoing DOJ scandal and the trial of former governor Rod Blagojevich, the fifth Illinois governor to be charged with criminal conduct over the last 50 years. And of course Enron and Arthur Andersen and the puzzling refusal of the treasury to rescue Lehman Brothers after having bailed out Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, leading to the financial meltdown that has crippled the world economy.

In a January 29 2010 article in the Independent, Representative Alan Grayson is quoted as saying about a Supreme Court ruling permitting advertisements by corporations during an election campaign “It basically institutionalizes and legalizes bribery on the largest scale imaginable. Corporations will now be able to reward the politicians that play ball with them – and beat to death the politicians that don’t”.

And despite all the above, you illogically regard Israel as the corrupt country.

You ask whether Israelis are ready, with the right security guarantees, to make the painful choices leading to peace and unhesitatingly, together with the great majority of Israelis I answer a resounding YES! And in order to make progress, in all sincerity, I ask you in your capacity as an acclaimed observer of the Middle East to elaborate on the “right security guarantees” that you refer to, taking into account the continuing incitement to hatred in Palestinian schools and mosques, the declared intentions to annihilate Israel and the consequences of Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza strip.

I hope I am wrong in the impression I have gained from your articles that you are so biased that you are unable to write objectively about Israel and I would welcome a response from you confirming that I am wrong.

I will be publicizing this letter, as well as the response I hope to receive from you.


Maurice Ostroff

New York Times

A Test of Israel’s Character


Published: September 23, 2010

NEW YORK — At a dinner hosted by American Jewish leaders for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, I was seated with a senior U.S. diplomat to my left, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization to my right, and Abbas opposite.

It was like listening to a rousing peace overture as an ominous leitmotif of disaster keeps returning with ever greater insistence.

While Abbas referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his “partner in peace” and said it would be “criminal” if Palestinian and Jewish leaders failed, the American diplomat and Yasir Abed Rabbo of the P.L.O. kept whispering in my ear that the mother of all train wrecks was looming. “Netanyahu is playing games,” Rabbo said.

I came away from the dinner convinced the United States is on the brink of a diplomatic fiasco. Less than a month after President Obama put the imprimatur of a White House ceremony on renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, the negotiations are close to breakdown. If that happens, as Netanyahu and Abbas know, Obama would look amateurish.

The two leaders need the United States, an incentive to avoid humiliating Obama. But with just a couple of days to the expiration Sunday of an Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, both sides are digging in. Despite Obama’s public plea to Netanyahu — “It makes sense to extend that moratorium” — the Israeli government seems to have rejected a formal extension.

That would be a terrible mistake. Obama should fight it until the last minute. His international credibility is on the line.

Abbas made nice at the dinner, inching back from earlier statements that he would abandon the talks if settlement construction resumes. He could not say he would walk out but it would be “very difficult for me to resume talks.” Bottom line: Renewed building would be a body blow to the latest peace effort.

Why, Abbas asked, could Netanyahu not tell his center-right cabinet he needed a three-month extension because direct talks were at a delicate stage? Good question, in response to which Netanyahu could ask another: Why did the Palestinians wait until the moratorium was about to expire to resume talks? Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, got philosophical: “The end of the freeze is a test case for the concept of compromise. Neither side will get all it wants.”

Fair enough in principle, but Meridor misses the point. This decision is a symbolic test case of something much deeper. It is a test case of Israeli seriousness about peace. It is a test case of whether the two-state idea really outweighs the lingering Messianic one-state Judea and Samaria illusion.

If there is to be a two-state solution, it cannot be that the physical space for a Palestinian state keeps diminishing, square meter by square meter, as settlements expand. Two plus two cannot equal five.

The 43-year history of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been painful and corrosive, a cycle of harsh repression and Palestinian terror. In “The Yellow Wind,” the Israeli novelist David Grossman, whose New Yorker profile by George Packer is a must read, put it this way: “I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched.”

Do Israelis, in their majority, want to continue to lord over another people? Or are they ready, with the right security guarantees, to make the painful choices that would, in restoring dignity to a neighboring people, also confer riveting new dignity on Israel?

I believe they are ready to take that risk — peace is also risk — but Netanyahu has to lead them there. He has not yet made the decision to do so. He’s a politician with his finger to the wind. What he senses from within his own Likud party and others further right is that he cannot extend the freeze and hold things together.

Or so it seems. Oh, sure, he’ll commit privately to limiting West Bank construction to a bare minimum. But that won’t cut it with a Palestinian leadership that has taken courageous steps to stabilize the West Bank and needs a clear signal — now — that Israel understands peace will involve reversing the settlements, not growing them further.

Abbas is serious about peace. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is very serious and has done enough on the West Bank to prompt a World Bank statement this week saying: “If the Palestinian Authority maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” Both men have done an enormous amount to curb violence, renounce it as a method, and establish credible security services. Israel will not find better interlocutors.

But the progress is fragile, as recent clashes have shown. That’s why Obama must now break some bones to get his way: “Bibi, read my lips. It makes sense to extend that moratorium by a few months. For Israel and for the United States.”