The Making of a New York Times Pundit
Until a week ago, it may be fair to say, few New York Times readers were acquainted with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. A young writer for the leftist weekly Koteret Rashit during the 1980s, he moved to the leftist daily Haaretz, the bible for Israel’s secular intelligentsia, in the mid-Nineties. Prolific and perceptive, if fervently opposed to Jewish settlements and sharply critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rhetorical thundering against Iranian nuclear development, he is in the top tier of Israeli journalists.
Within the past month, Shavit has become an American media luminary. It began with a New Yorker excerpt (October 21) from My Promised Land, his “personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel” that has just been published. A chapter from his book, it explores the “unhealed wound” of Lydda, the small city near Tel Aviv from which thousands of Palestinians were expelled in 1948 to enable a fledgling Jewish nation to fight off invaders from five Arab states and Palestinian neighbors who were determined to destroy it.
The Times cascade of endorsements began with Thomas Friedman’s recommendation (November 16) that Obama and Netanyahu read Shavit’s book to better understand the “miracle” (for Jews) and “nightmare” (for Palestinians) that Zionism has fostered ever since 1948. High praise (even from a friend) is always welcome. Shavit, Friedman noted, “is one of a handful of experts whom I’ve relied upon to understand Israel ever since I reported there in the 1980s.”
Given Shavit’s stanch left-wing commitments at the time, from which he has receded toward the center in recent years, that says something about Times coverage of the Jewish state thirty years ago. Indeed, the affinity between Shavit and Friedman is boldly proclaimed in the first sentence of the dust jacket for My Promised Land: “Not since Thomas L. Friedman’s groundbreaking From Beirut to Jerusalem has a book captured the essence and the beating heart of the Middle East as keenly and dynamically” as Shavit’s book, which is far more poignant, penetrating, and powerful than his American friend’s petulant diatribe.
Within three days after Friedman’s column, Shavit had appeared on NPR and his book received a rave review in the Times from its literary critic Dwight Garner. With the stage properly set, it was time for Shavit himself to make his appearance on the Times Opinion page (November 21). Warning that the current Geneva negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are likely to produce “an Iranian victory – and an American defeat,” and even comparing “the Geneva mind-set” to “a Munich mind-set,” Shavit sharply warned of yet another disastrous “peace-in-our-time” delusion.
But blame for the impending disaster of a nuclear Iran is not attributable to President Obama. Nor even to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is hardly Shavit’s favorite Israeli politician. Who, then, is responsible? It is entirely the consequence of the “incomprehensible mistake” of President George W. Bush for invading Iraq and not Iran. His unwillingness to launch “a diplomatic campaign against Iran rather than a military one against Iraq” was a fateful error. He exhausted American “economic power and military might in a futile war”; then he “passed on to Mr. Obama a nation that had lost much of the resolve it had possessed.” Obama, Shavit acknowledges, has made his own mistakes. But he has been “operating within the smoky ruins of the strategic disaster he had inherited” from his predecessor.
Shavit wisely perceives the “illusion” of Iranian President Rouhani’s newly asserted “moderation.” But he cannot resist the final dig that earns him a place of honor on the Times Opinion page: “President Obama was right to demand a settlement freeze in the West Bank in 2009. Now he must demand a total centrifuge freeze in Iran.” That is, to say the least, an absurd non sequitur. Any implication that Jewish settlements pose a world danger equivalent to Iranian nuclear bombs is preposterous. But it comes naturally to Shavit, who has never entirely shed his nostalgia for “the grand and noble campaigns of the Israeli peace movement,” nor his conviction as a student radical that settlements were “a calamity in the making.”
Jewish settlers, he writes in his book, are possessed by “messianic delusions of grandeur”; they are “a cancer, endangering the entire body” of Israel. Shavit can only see “a zealot’s fever”; “a national-religious fervor.” Yet even before the first socialist kibbutz (Ein Harod, Shavit’s beloved model) was built in “a valley inhabited by others” (i.e. Arabs) in 1921, settlement of the land of Israel already defined Zionism. To Shavit, however, religious-Zionist settlement since 1967 explains why “enlightened Jews in American and Europe” – to say nothing of Israel – are ashamed of the Jewish state.
It cannot get much better than that: blame President Bush and Jewish settlers for the malaise of the Obama presidency. Welcome to The New York Times, Ari Shavit.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey (Quid Pro Books, 2012)