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Allies at Odds: Israel and the United States

April 8, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: With me to discuss the growing divergence between the United States and Israel are Norman Podhoretz, editor at large of Commentary Magazine. He was among 31 signers of a letter to President Bush urging the U.S. to stand by Israel; and former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. He’s written an essay about the Mideast in the latest issue of the “New York Review of Books.”

Well, Norman Podhoretz, let’s start with you. Should the Sharon government do what the Bush Administration has asked: Withdraw and do it without delay?

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Well, evidently, it has begun to withdraw, so I gathered from the latest news reports from at least two towns. But I think the entire demand is unfortunate. I think it’s contrary to the interests of Israel and it’s contrary to the interests of the war against terrorism being waged by the United States. It seems to me that what the Israelis are trying to do in those territories is no different, either morally or strategically, from what we ourselves have been trying to do in Afghanistan, which is to say: To root out a terrorist infrastructure which is protected by a regime, and that means toppling the regime itself just as the Taliban had to be toppled in order for us to get at al-Qaida, so I think the Palestinian Authority will have to be toppled and replaced by a regime that will not harbor, sponsor, nourish terrorism and therefore might conceivably be reply a regime that could make peace with Israel. There is no possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority run by the thugs and murderers and terrorists under Arafat’s command.

RAY SUAREZ: Anthony Lewis, should the Sharon government do what President Bush has asked?

ANTHONY LEWIS: Of course it should. It has no choice. The United States has been the main supporter of Israel since its founding in 1948, and it’s unthinkable that an American President’s strong and reiterated belief that what is essential for the security of the United States and Israel, inconceivable that that would not be done, and it will be done, I’m sure. I must say that I shudder when I think of what would follow Mr. Podhoretz– and I believe he accurately reflects Mr. Sharon’s ideas– when he says the present Palestinian Authority must be overthrown and replaced. Most people on the ground and experts on the subject think it would be replaced by a far more extreme, angry regime, one that would reflect the overwhelming anger of all Palestinians. And, you know, most Palestinians are like you and me. They are not terrorists. They’re ordinary people. But when your country has been occupied for 35 years and when tanks have smashed your cars and your homes and your television stations and everything else, you’re a little angry.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you began your answer by noting the long alliance between the United States and Israel. The United States also delivers aid. The two countries are part of a shared security umbrella. Is there an obligation on the part of the Israelis to take the American lead in this regard, Anthony Lewis?

ANTHONY LEWIS: I don’t know about obligation. Israel has always quite rightly said we make our own decisions for ourselves. But it is a fact that Israel is where it is today because of American support — American support on the edge in the 1973 War when Israel was very near losing, when more supplies of weapons were provided by the United States, just about on time, and, you know, I don’t think any Israeli who knows something about the subject would want to be alone in the world without American support. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. The United States is not going to stop supporting Israel. We have an identity of belief and history. And Israel is not going to defy the United States for long. I just don’t believe that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you noted, Norman Podhoretz that a withdrawal of sorts has begun. It’s from two smaller towns while the offensive continues elsewhere. But as the Powell trip approaches, what should the United States’ attitude be toward Israel if the withdrawal is not complete by the time the Secretary is meant to visit Israel?

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Well, I suspect that there will be anger in Washington unless there’s another change in policy, such as we’ve seen now at least once, perhaps twice, not only in policy but in attitude toward the war against Israel that’s been conducted really since 1948, since the birth of Israel of which this is just the latest campaign. To me, it seems that the Bush policy in the war against terrorism, which I support with all my heart and which I think he had been conducting magnificently, has now fallen into inconsistency and incoherence because the president is asking the Israelis to do exactly the reverse of what we ourselves are doing in response to exactly the same kind of attack. If anything, the attacks on the Israelis have been more persistent and in some ways worse than the attack on us because they’ve been happening on a daily basis and disrupting life to a greater extent than our lives have been disrupted.

I think the United States would be wise in our own interest, in our own interest, to side with the Israelis in conducting this particular campaign. It’s as though a front in the war against terror that the Israelis are fighting both for their own sakes and I think for the sake of the general cause. And, frankly, I believe that the United States has allowed itself to be deflected from the focus and clarity that the President had with admirable, awesome incandescence until Vice President Cheney’s trip to the Middle East in which I think we allowed ourselves to be snookered by a fraudulent Saudi so-called peace plan into changing the subject from Iraq, which is what we were… which Vice President Cheney went to the Middle East to talk about, change the subject from Iraq to Israel which is exactly what the Arab world and the Muslim world wanted to happen. Here we are stuck in that morass instead of pursuing with vigor and determination and with, I repeat the word because it’s important, clarity, the purposes that the president has several times enunciated as eloquently as any president before him has stated the objectives of the American policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go back to Tony Lewis at this point –

ANTHONY LEWIS: Yeah. I’d like a word in edgewise here, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: — because I want to get his comment on your – on Norman Podhoretz’s point that there is some – some similarities between what Israel is trying to do in the West Bank with what the United States is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan.

ANTHONY LEWIS: I was chilled when Mr. Podhoretz said it’s in our security interest to support a continued Israeli assault on not just terrorists, which they are trying to find terrorists, but on the ordinary people of the West Bank in very large numbers, on their homes and on their… all of their structure. The water has been cut off for thousands, hundreds of thousands of people and so on. That’s in our interest? We are going to… we risk, by doing what we’re doing– if we did that, if we sided with the extremist government of Mr. Sharon, we would risk the governments of all the moderate Arab countries being overthrown. That would be an immense blow to us, the most serious blow the United States security has suffered in years. Something has to be understood here.

RAY SUAREZ: Let him finish, please. Go ahead.

ANTHONY LEWIS: Something has to be understood here. This is a situation in which there can be no peace unless and until the Israelis get out of the Palestinian territory or most of it that they have occupied for nearly 35 years. It’s something none of us could even… Americans could even conceive of, could imagine, to have other people building homes and running tanks next door to you, and for 35 years. It’s really terrible for the people who live there. And they’re not going to accept it.

There can be no peace unless Israel gives up that effort at colonization. That has to be part of any mission that an American Secretary of State brings there: An attempt to get back on the diplomatic track to really find peace. You know, Mr. Podhoretz dismisses the Crown Prince’s peace thing. It’s pretty important to Israel. Israel wants to live in peace. It doesn’t want to live surrounded by war as it has for so many years. This is the best chance it has. Saudi Arabia, which has been the most anti-Israeli country, offering to make peace — why would you reject that? I just don’t understand it.

NORMAN PODHORETZ: The Saudis have offered to make peace on condition that the Israelis accept the so- called right of return for the Palestinian refugees. Translated into plain English, that means if Israel ceases to be a democratic state, the Arab world will graciously accept its existence, which it has never done before and still doesn’t, for the most part. And as for the so-called moderate Arab regimes that Mr. Lewis is so concerned about, if you look at their media, their official media, I’m talking about, their state-sponsored and sanctioned media, they are full of the most vile anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments that you can imagine. So that the notion that these… I’m talking about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example — the notion that these are moderate countries in favor of peace is simply preposterous. It doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. The evidence runs in the other direction.

The plain fact is… the plain fact is, if I may, that there can be no peace unless the Arab world makes its own peace with the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East. 98 percent… you would never know from Mr. Lewis that 98 percent of the Palestinian people have been living now for some years under the regime of the Palestinian Authority, not under Israeli occupation. You would never know from Mr. Lewis that this so-called colonization occupies about 1.5 percent of the lands that Israel took over in a defensive war against an aggression in 1967.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Anthony Lewis is going to respond to you right now, sir. Let me get one last comment. And Anthony Lewis, go ahead. Quickly, please.

ANTHONY LEWIS: I don’t think there’s any point in answering such absurd misrepresentations of fact. The truth is, as everybody knows, that Israel roams all around the West Bank. The tanks are there today, the helicopters, the planes. You live as a Palestinian under constant attack and threat from Israel. And the only way to make peace is to let those people have their own country and to seize the opportunity.

NORMAN PODHORETZ: They were offered that and refused and made war instead 18 months ago when Barak offered them virtually everything they had been asking for.

RAY SUAREZ: Okay. Norman Podhoretz, Anthony Lewis, gentlemen, thank you both.