Israel Report

June 2002         

Charles Krauthammer:
A Pen in Defense of Zion

Bret Stephens - June 13, 2002
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, winner of this year's Guardian of Zion award, talks with Bret Stephens about the media coverage of Israel, the war on terror and America's role in the Middle East

Explaining his decision to switch his university studies from political science to medicine, Charles Krauthammer once wrote that "Medicine promised not only moral certainty, but intellectual certainty, a hardness to truth, something not to be found in the universe of politics."

Although Krauthammer did eventually return to the universe of politics as a commentator on it, his desire for moral and intellectual certainty, and the hardness of truth, is no less evident. This has especially been so regarding his unstinting defense of Israel.

This week, recognizing his support of the Jewish State in print over the years, he was honored with the Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, which was given in past years to historian Martin Gilbert, columnist A.M. Rosenthal, and writers Elie Wiesel, Herman Wouk, and Cynthia Ozick.

Born in New York City in 1950 and raised in Montreal, Krauthammer attended McGill and Oxford universities, and Harvard Medical School. Despite suffering a serious accident that left him severely incapacitated, he completed his medical degree and practiced psychiatry before turning to journalism. He became a senior editor for The New Republic and began contributing columns to other publications, winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1987. Today his weekly syndicated column for The Washington Post Writers Group appears in more than 100 newspapers, including The Jerusalem Post. This week he was in Jerusalem to accept the Guardian of Zion award.

What do you make of media coverage of Israel? - The American coverage, by and large, has been fairly good. I have some complaints about the way the major papers cover certain things. To the extent that [American coverage] is anti-Israel, I have always maintained that much of that bias comes from an abysmal ignorance. They don't know how the '67 war started. They don't know how Israel came into the territories. They don't know what 1948 was about. They couldn't tell you what the UN partition resolution was about. Many of the journalists are shaped by the civil rights movement in America and South Africa. So those are the models: colonialism and racism. And they turn to these concepts, I don't think out of malice, but out of laziness and ignorance. And when you get to a higher level of sophistication, people who know something, you tend to get better coverage.

By contrast, the BBC the other night had an interview with Zalman Shoval that lasted about two minutes, in which the interviewer just became aggressive. She said to him: "But Yasser Arafat yesterday arrested a member of Islamic Jihad. Doesn't that prove that he's reformed?" It was a question that I would have been embarrassed for anyone to ask. And she asked it with such certainty and venom that you can see how that would affect people here.

So what do you think explains the thinking of that BBC moderator? Would you call her an anti-Semite? - For a long time I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. But I think I'm reaching my limits on that and I'll tell you why.

There are dozens of oppressed people around the world. There are dozens of claimants to statehood who don't have it. Thousands died in Rwanda; who knows how many died in the Congo. Europe doesn't shed a tear over any of them. And yet Europe is passionate about the Palestinians.

Now this is either one of the greatest coincidences in the history of compassion or it's related to a single fact: The Palestinians are the only ones of these so-called perceived oppressed whose enemies are the Jews. I don't subscribe to the coincidence idea. The fact that this unbelievable passion has been attached to the Palestinians has, without question, its roots in anti-Semitism. No other explanation.

Where does that come from? I would argue that the last 50 years in Europe have been a very great historical anomaly. Our generation grew up in these 50 years, so we've come to imagine that what we've seen in our lifetime is the norm. - What's happened, in fact, is that we've reverted to the norm, and escaped the anomaly. I got a letter from a friend in Britain that described the situation among his colleagues about a sense of exhilaration that they've been released from the taboos imposed by the Holocaust on expressing publicly their feeling about Jews and Israel. And that is what Europe is in the throes of. It's not about Le Pen's election, it isn't about attributing the burning of the synagogues to Muslims. What you see is elite opinion which is dripping with anti-Semitism, disguised politely as anti-Zionism.

My colleague Michael Kinsley at The New Republic once described a gaffe as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. The remarks by the French ambassador to Britain at Barbara Amiel's house [in which he called Israel "that shitty little country"] - that's what that is.

But why is anti-Semitism so persistent? Why after 50 years does it recur, like a disease that had merely lain dormant? - I always resist that question. It's the mystery of German anti-Semitism. It's the mystery of all anti-Semitism.

So facts are undeniable, but to explain them is rather difficult because it goes against what appears to be certain historic transformations of European consciousness. You've had 19 centuries of anti-Semitism, then you had 50 years of polite suppression, and now that generation is gone and now they have this wonderful excuse.

There is, in addition to the old anti-Semitism, which has its roots of course in Christian anti-Semitism, a new hatred of a Jew as an actor in history. They can live with Jews as victims; they can live with Jews as passive; they can live with the Jew to be pitied; they love dead Jews; they love the Holocaust; they can share their anti-Semitic credentials on Holocaust Day. But it's the Jew in history, the Jew as actor, the Jew no longer as a pathetic figure but a responsible one, one who commits glorious actions and not-so-glorious actions, that they cannot stand.

Good thing, then, that the Europeans are a waning force... - They're finished. And that feeds their resentment even more, resentment against the United States and resentment against Israel, [as] the more vulnerable doppleganger for the US.

I think that the attitude stems from a sense of humiliation at their irrelevance. I mean, here's a continent that ruled the world for 500 years. They kind of hung on in the 20th century and they actually had a pretty important role to play during the Cold War. Then comes the Gulf War, then comes the end of the Cold War, then comes the Afghan War. Three blows. With the end of the Cold War, there was no need for whatever they had militarily, while the Gulf War and the Afghan War demonstrated the unbelievable gap between them and the United States.

But that military gap, it's a voluntary gap, a self-willed renunciation of power. What kind of people would do that? - People who are exhausted.

You have to give the Europeans their due. They had the two greatest civil wars - if you want to look at the world wars as internal European civil wars - and a lot of countries after civil wars decide to retire from their role in history. What you have is a degeneration. The Europeans are comically anti-colonial; they are in revolt against everything they stood for in the past. Now they've decided to seek the path of social democracy. They're turning totally inward, they're passionate about the regulation of the size of sausages in Brussels, and that's what they do, that's the task.

In some sense, it makes sense. The European Union is the solution to the great civil war problem, and it might work. But you can see a civilization turning inwards for centuries after this kind of bloodletting, trying to figure out how to patch it together.

The main thing is, the Europeans absolutely have chosen [this role], and that's what makes their petulance so intolerable. It isn't as if we conspired to emasculate them; we've been encouraging them to build their military for years. It was their choice. They chose social welfare over military spending and now they refuse to accept the consequences.

Turn to the war on terrorism. Do you fear that the administration is squandering the momentum of 9/11 in places like the Philippines and Somalia, leaving out a real attempt to reshape the Middle East? - We won't really know until history is written. If the administration were preparing for war, they'd be fairly discreet in getting ready for it.

My guess is that they are not deflected, and that the president is entirely committed to it. And in the end that's the key thing. I believe he sees the war on terrorism as his calling, and I believe he sees the invasion of Iraq as absolutely necessary. There's more opposition to that in the government than there might have been a few months ago, but I don't think it's decisive. We get distracted for sure about the Middle East, but I don't think because we try to send Colin Powell to mediate that that means the preparations for Iraq have stopped.

So why is the administration investing so much effort here? - Look at it from Washington's perspective, and you can understand it.

I still think the president made a mistake with his April 4 speech, but I have a pretty good idea of how that happened. You've got everybody in a loud war cry over Israeli actions. You've got reports coming to the president that there are demonstrations in Amman, the government's stability is in question. You've got the Europeans in full throat. On April 4, six days into the operation, the administration had said nothing, obviously giving a very bright green light to Israel. And they felt that diplomatically it was costing the US.

In the end, if you look at the totality of the whole policy, basically the United States gave Israel cover for three weeks, which is longer than I would have thought. I thought they'd have three days to do it. So, from the perspective of the US, which is involved in a war on terrorism, something that requires some assistance - at least intelligence assistance - around the world, they felt they were going to pay a huge price if they didn't appear to do anything. I think that most of what we've seen is appearance. And I hope I'm correct in thinking that they are basically putting on a show.

Now that is not to say that there aren't people in the State Department who want what they see as real movement, meaning pressure on Israel. But I don't believe that's the president's perspective. I think right now they do pretty much what you or I would probably do if we wanted to give Israel some leeway but didn't want it to look too obvious.

Will a peace plan imposed on Israel emerge out of the blue? I can't tell you. I know that from here it looks like the administration is losing focus, they're getting obsessed, heading down the road to accommodation, I don't think that's what's going on. But the president's response to Mubarak was pretty curt. This policy hinges largely on the president's will, which has held fairly steady.

How do you see the situation here? My own sense is that the situation we now face is going to last for a long time. - I see it your way. I think the only major deus ex machina would be an Iraq war, a regime change, Iraq becoming a pro-Western, pro-peace client state. It would have a dramatic effect on the region.

Things could also be short-circuited by Israel being sold-out, but I don't see that happening. So with America having limited leverage on the Palestinian side, heavy leverage on the Israeli side, without a decisive change in American policy I don't see the balance of forces changing drastically, which means I don't see the course of the war changing radically. I think there are defensive measures Israel can take that can take the level of the terror down to the point where the Palestinians may have to rethink where they're going. But that's the only hope for change.

Is it realistic to expect the Palestinians to rethink where they're going? It seems to me impossible given the gains they've made. - I think that the battle for the West Bank is over. We lost it. The battle for Jerusalem has begun.

I gave a speech in October 1993, and I said the battle for the West Bank is lost. The West Bank was forfeited the moment they signed that peace agreement. It didn't look like it, but it was absolutely the case. Barak obviously made it permanent, obvious, irreversible, in a catastrophic way, but if not Barak it might have happened sooner or later. Oslo was the great catastrophe.

Oslo will go down in history as the greatest diplomatic blunder that any country that had not suffered military defeat could make. Germany and Japan had no bargaining chips at the end of the Second World War. Israel came very close to forfeiting its existence with Oslo. We had an enemy in the PLO that was on the verge of extinction. That's what history will scratch its head about. The arrogance, the super-cleverness of the Israeli Left that they're going to rescue this dying PLO just enough so that it could be their contractor against terrorism and be their policemen... It was insane. And the fact that the Left still doesn't recognize they made a mistake, and that they carry on - I've never seen anything like it.

So can Israel pick up the pieces? - I feel a sense of depression myself. I must say before Operation Defensive Shield I was totally despairing. I think that the demonstration of martial will was important. But it was a very, very first step.

It's also true there's no program you can offer Israel to pull the pieces back from so much self-inflicted damage. To invite the PLO into the West Bank, to give it sanctuary, to build a military, to indoctrinate the population, and launch a war, is unbelievable. And there's no way to walk that one back.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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