International,  Israel/Palestine,  Vote 2008

Samantha Power and Israel

This is a guest post by a Harry’s Place reader

Towards the end of her anti-Obama rant, Melanie Phillips writes the following:

Most revolting of all is Samantha Power, a very close adviser whom Obama fired for calling Hillary a ‘monster’ but who says she still expects to be in Obama’s administration. Not only has Power has advocated the ending of all aid to Israel and redirecting it to the Palestinians, but she has spoken about the need to land a ‘mammoth force’ of US troops in Israel to protect the Palestinians from Israeli attempts at genocide (sic) — and has complained that criticism of Barack Obama all too often came down to what was ‘good for the Jews’.

Let’s start with some basics (aside from the fact that Power was not fired by Obama – she resigned). Power is a journalist and academic who won a Pulitzer for her 2003 book “A Problem from Hell,” which examined the US response to a range of genocides. Her favourite theme– amplified in her recent biography of the late UN icon Sergio Vieira de Mello– is the relationship between human rights and international politics. She has been passionate in her defence of humanitarian intervention. She has spoken eloquently and written widely on Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur and other human rights emergencies. She is an expert in her field.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, if anything, been peripheral to her work. She is certainly not an expert on the issue. That’s why there’s something rather unfortunate about the fact that what people have understood to be her views on the subject could potentially derail her widely deserved reputation– and prevent her from being a voice inside the Obama administration on all those festering sores, from Darfur to Burma, which are too often overshadowed by Israel and Palestine and the related notion that the Palestinians are, of all the peoples on the earth, the ones suffering the most.

Let’s look at the “quotes” from Power which Phillips marshals. The most damaging one concerns the apparent claim that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. Now, most people who assert this claim believe that the “genocide” commenced in 1947/48, during Israel’s war of independence. Power’s book on genocide covers the Armenians and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Kurds among others. A good chunk of it consists of an elegant portrait of Raphael Lemkin, the Holocaust survivor who coined the term “genocide”. The Palestinians don’t figure at all for a good reason. Power doesn’t regard their experience as constituting a genocide.

So if she didn’t write about the Palestinian “genocide” in her best-seller on genocide, why are so many people under the impression that this is what she thinks? Back in 2002, Power gave a lengthy interview on US foreign policy and genocide. Towards the end she was asked about the character of a hypothetical intervention in Israel and Palestine. She talked about “a mammoth protection force, not of the old Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence. Because it seems to me at this stage (and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which were seen there), you have to go in as if you’re serious, you have to put something on the line.”

So there you have it – she did not accuse Israel of committing genocide. In fact, she seemed to be saying that this is not an “actual genocide” but a “major human rights abuse.”

Moreover, she didn’t accuse Israel of being the sole sponsor of such abuse. She went on to say, “Unfortunately, imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful. It’s a terrible thing to do, it’s fundamentally undemocratic. But, sadly, we don’t just have a democracy here either, we have a liberal democracy. There are certain sets of principles that guide our policy, or that are meant to, anyway. It’s essential that some set of principles becomes the benchmark, rather than a deference to [leaders] who are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people. And by that I mean what Tom Friedman has called ‘Sharafat.’ I do think in that sense, both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require external intervention, which, very much like the Rwanda scenario, that thought experiment, if we had intervened early…. Any intervention is going to come under fierce criticism. But we have to think about lesser evils, especially when the human stakes are becoming ever more pronounced.”

The worst thing you can say about this statement is that it’s vague and convoluted. A campaign of demonisation against Israel it most definitely is not.

With that in mind, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone on the right has rushed to trash Power. Notably, neoconservative writer Max Boot came to her defence after Commentary magazine ran a string of decontextualised quotes. Boot wrote:

Power can explain her views better than I can, but it seems to me that all Pollak has are some statements from her supporting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a dialogue with Iran. I am skeptical about the prospects of either initiative succeeding, but to be in favor of such policies hardly involves repudiating Israel.

Pollack also quotes her as somehow being in favor of imposing a settlement on the parties, presumably with an outside peacekeeping force. I think is a pipe dream because no outside nation will put its troops on the line to stop Palestinian terrorism, but again it’s hardly an anti-Israeli position. In fact ,many Israelis would favor the deployment of, say, a NATO force as part of a final settlement with the Palestinians.

I’ve known Power for six years and have never heard her say anything that I would construe as anti-Israel. In fact, at a December 2006 forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School at which we were both panelists, she rather forcefully dismissed a claim by a Jewish anti-Zionist in the audience who tried to equate Israeli policy with South African apartheid—a favorite trope of the hard left.

Moreover, Power retains close friendships with stalwart defenders of Israel like the New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier and Richard Holbrooke, one of the names being mooted as Obama’s Secretary of State. It stretches credulity to believe that either of them would count an antisemite or an Israel-hater among their confidantes. And that is because Power is neither. To tar her with such views, as Melanie Phillips has done in one of the sloppiest excuses for journalism it’s been my misfortune to read in a long time, does not only Power a grave disservice. It insults the victims of antisemitism and cheapens our ongoing battle against it.

The ultimate point, though, is that were Power to be appointed to an Obama administration, Israel and Palestine would not be part of her remit. Genocide would be. I can think of no one better qualified than Samantha Power to take on this dreadful scar upon our civilisation. What a shame that people like Melanie Phillips are too petty to understand that.