Steve Coll on the Middle East

Friday, May 20, 2011

President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department May 19, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and contributor to the New Yorker, reacted to President Obama's speech and discusses the Arab Spring and the U.S. reaction.

Bin Laden's fall and the Arab Spring

Yesterday, President Obama used his speech on Middle East policy to close the chapter on the death of Osama bin Laden. In the midst of a speech that drew attention largely for the demands made on Israel and Palestine, Obama attempted to persuade the rest of the Muslim world that bin Laden's ideology should die with him.

Steve Coll called it a smart move to connect that event with the Arab Spring that's bubbled up during the past six months, with radical Islam and oppressive regimes facing new challenges left and right. 

I do think the U.S. has an opportunity this year and in this flowering of political debate in the Muslim world to continuously make the sort of observation the president made yesterday: Osama lost the war of ideas—that doesn't mean the U.S. won, but as Arab societies redefine politics, there's an opportunity for a generation that's rising, the Facebook generation, to break away from old radicalisms, both Islamic and secular, and construct something new.

Walking the walk?

Coll also said that Muslim audiences bring an innate skepticism to speeches made by any president of the United States. For Muslims, Coll said, the Thursday speech was rife with omissions and contradictions that were sure to prick ears.

They're very attentive to inconsistencies; that's what their radar is most acutely tuned to. They know the U.S. has accommodated despots out of self interests, security interests, and energy interests for half a century or more in the Middle East. Even when an appealing president speaks about universal values, audiences abroad listen and say, 'Yes, I agree about your framing of rights, but now let's go to the case studies.'

When, as yesterday, the president goes country to country and tries to rationalize the accommodation of Bahrain's repression, leaves Saudi Arabia out altogether, then celebrates the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, you can bet people noticed that.

Bringing Hamas to the table

The words "1967 borders" do not sit well with Israelis, and now that a face-to-face with Benjamin Netanyahu is on the horizon all of a sudden, it seems President Obama has kicked the proverbial hornet's nest. But according to Steve Coll, Obama actually pulled back from an even tougher position that his aides were pressuring him to adopt. Borders aren't the real issue, Coll said: "In private, all serious people know that's actually the easiest part of negotiation. Refugees and Jerusalem are the tough parts."

Hamas wants to be a part of these negotiations going forward, but Israel isn't falling over itself to welcome them to the table. Central to Israel's reluctance is an element in Hamas' 20 year-old charter that refuses to recognize the Jewish state. This week, prior to Obama's speech, a Hamas official claimed that they should not be judged by their charter, that the organization is of a different character than it was 20 years ago. Coll said Israelis wouldn't take that with a straight face.

I think it's laughable for the spokesman for an organization to say, 'Don't judge us by our written charter.' If the charter doesn't represent you, rewrite the charter. I don't think Hamas' record inspires great confidence in their ability to organize themselves in the legitimately more moderate sections of their own organization, to reconcile their own internal discourse. Of course Hamas has potential as a legitimate element of public opinion in Palestinian society, however coercive, radical, and ugly it sometimes looks to us. It does have potential to evolve into a constructive political partner. 

Old-think insecurity

On one level, Hamas asking not to be judged by its charter reflects the anxiety of waning influence that confronted Osama bin Laden and continues to needle Arab leaders across the Middle East. Coll observed that some of the loudest voices in Muslim politics over the last half century, including Hamas, aren't leading the current round of revolts.

They're just as insecure as some of the despotic Arab governments around them about Arab Spring. The youth on the streets in Egypt and Tunis aren't chanting Hamas slogans; this is by and large a secular, diverse and self-determined generation. Hamas rightly feels threatened by what that means for their old-think radicalism.


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Comments [29]

rose-ellen from jackson heights,N.Y.

Israel should return to the 67borders.Hamas has said [on the charlie rose show]that if they did it the fact that they [hamas ]believes that israel is illigitimate would become a moot point.That arabs["palestinians'] believe and teach their children that the creation of the state of israel was illigitimate does not mean that they wish to kill every israeli or jewish person any more then our belief that the USSR was illigitimate mean we wanted to kill every russian or the belief that native americans may have that the creation of the U.S. was illigitimate mean that they want to dismantle or kill every american,though they may believe and teach their children that it the creation of the U.S. was illigitimate because it was on the backs of the native americans..The palestinians have the right to their beliefs and the reason israel will not negotiate a peace with 67 borders is because the israeli's want to control the narrative about israel.That people believe the creation of israel was ignoble ,wrong and a catastrophe for the arabs when the israeli's believe the creation of israel was a noble,heroic and just event is at the root of the empasse to's not about borders but about the pride of the israeli's.They are being tyranical in insisting that arabs not believe and preach what they believe about israel.The arabs believe that israel was ignoble and illigitimate [back when the U.N. was a colonial white man's club] and unjustly [therefore morally illigitimate] created.Israel will not tolerate that belief.Hamas wants to keep that belief as part of their history[hence charter].israel is being controling and tyranical in not allowing them to believe something bad about them.The violence committed by palestinians is due to the oppressive unjust occupation and they resist with what ever methods they have.And as we say "war is hell' when we justify our killings of people [including civilians] in war.They are at war To go back to the 67 borders would end that and would bring true peace and therefore security to israel.Unfortunately their desire to control the narrative about the creation of that state by not negotiating with people who see the creation of israel as an unjust catastrope imposed on arabs exposes the israeli's tyranical control not just of the borders but on the very beliefs of the palestinians.

May. 20 2011 03:48 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

As I said, dboy, I will join you in a campaign to end US aid to Israel, provided you join me in cutting off aid and arms sales to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Palestinians, etc. I will be more than overjoyed to see all aid and all arms sales from the US stopped to the entire Middle East!

As for the 25,000 US defense workers who will probably be laid off as a result, well, that's life. Israeli defense companies will be overjoyed as Israel will have to rely more on its own local defense industries. For years, Israeli defense companies have been bitter not only about US aid, but also that many Israeli engineers have been snapped up by US defense companies in California, causing somewhat of a brain drain. If US aid stops, some of those Israeli engineers might have to go back to work for their old Israeli companies instead.

May. 20 2011 11:46 AM
jgarbuz from Queens


If the US did not sell Saudi Arabia and Egypt THREE TIMES as many planes and equipment as it gives to ISrael, the latter wouldn't need ONE PENNY OF AID IN THE FIRST PLACE.

What the US is doing is the equivalent of given Britain aid in 1940 while at the same time selling Nazi Germany three times as much arms! And then telling Britain, well we give you aid so you have to do what we tell you!

What the US is subsidizing is not ISrael, but tens of thousands of US defense jobs!!! That is what the taxpayer is subsidizing. Israel has nukes. It has its own missiles. It doesn't really need so many planes. It has its own UAV's. I would tell the US to cut off aid, but also cut off arms sales to the Arabs, and then see who's better off!

May. 20 2011 11:32 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

What happened to all the US aid (some $120 billion since 1948)? Ask 25,000 or so workers at Beoing, Lockheed, General Dynamics, and other US defense companies since 75% of that money went into their wages to make F-16 and F-15s for Israel. But frankly, of the 25% of that money that actually went to the Israelis themselves actually went to line the pockets of defense contractors, politicians, and others of that ilk. Very little went to the people of Israel. Most ISraelis don't sleep at night in F-15s or Blackhawk helicopters. But if the US had not sold the Arabs nearly 3 planes for every 1 it gave to Israel, Israel wouldn't have needed one penny of that aid., Taking the aid was ISrael's achilles heel. I said so openly when I lived their in the 1980s. I told them that this money will come with not a sting, but a LEASH attached to it. And now Obama has that leash around Israel's neck because it allowed itself to get addicted to easy money.

May. 20 2011 11:26 AM

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. has been slowly phasing out economic aid to Israel and gradually replacing it with increased military aid. Beginning in 2007, the U.S. has increased military aid by $150 million each year. By FY2012, we will be sending Israel $3.09 billion a year (or an average of $8.5 million a day) and will continue to provide military aid at that level through 2018. U.S. tax dollars are subsidizing one of the most powerful foreign militaries. According to the CRS report, “[current U.S. military aid] grants to Israel represent 18.2% of the overall Israeli defense budget.”
Contrary to ordinary U.S. policy, Israel has been and continues to be allowed to use approximately 25% of this military aid to purchase equipment from Israeli manufacturers. According to CRS, “no other recipient of U.S. military assistance has been granted this benefit.” Thanks in part to this indirect U.S. subsidy, Israel’s arms industry has become one of the strongest in the world. “Between 2001 an 2008, it was the 7th largest arms supplier to the world with sales worth a total of 9.9 billion.”
In addition to military aid, the United States continues to provide Israel with additional aid and benefits. The numbers are not yet available for FY2009, but are likely to be significant.
By all accounts the United States has given more money to Israel than to any other country. The Congressional Research Service’s conservative estimate of total cumulative US aid to Israel (not adjusted for inflation) from 1949 through 2010 is $109.001 billion.

May. 20 2011 11:24 AM

Israel receives $3 billion each year in US subsidy.

Meanwhile, we are cutting Medicare, Social Security and firing teachers...

Like I said:


May. 20 2011 11:19 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Israel's huge mistake was accepting foreign aid from the US! It should never have started! Israel after '67 should have told the US the following: "If you don't sell our enemies, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or any of the Arab states arms, we won't need a penny of your aid." That what Israel should have told the US after '67. Unfortunately, in Israel there is a culture of "schnorring," a yiddish word equivalent to "grubbing." As one Israeli told me a long time ago, "If they give, take! You can always throw it away later." This culture of "schnorring," or grubbing money whether you need it or not is now biting Israel in the butt! Because it made it look Israel was born in the womb of the US, and is a bad little boy if it doesn't do everything Uncle Sam demands of it. When you act like a beggar, you are treated like a beggar. I wish Netanyahu would tell Obama to keep US aid, but just stop selling arms to ISrael's enemies as well.

May. 20 2011 11:18 AM

@jgarbuz from Queens

You just illustrated my point on "reasonable" beautifully.


May. 20 2011 11:15 AM
gary from queens

Dear RLewis

Many Israelis wouldn't mind living with the 67 borders. "BORDERS" to most Israelis has always been an incidental matter----BUT for ONE critical factor.

That factor is this: Arabs have demonstrated through 5 wars of aggression, 2 intefadas, constant deligitimization in all strata of their society, and now their alliance with a terrorist group that is still launching rockets into israel AS WE SPEAK.

OK? If Israel's partner was a peace-loving people, there would be 2 states with israel's original borders. YOU CAN'T IGNORE HISTORY! Recent history too. And what is currently going on. If there has been a people who have not earned the status of national sovereignty, it is the "palestinians."

May. 20 2011 11:14 AM

and all that US foreign aid? i wonder what they do with that?

May. 20 2011 11:11 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To dboy

Ha! Where the US M-16s in 1948, 1967, and 1973?? How did Israel manage to survive without US military equipment from 1948 to 1973?

Ever hear of the UZI submachine gun? Ever hear of the Galil assult rifle? Ever hear of the Tavor latest assult rifle? Ever hear of the Merkava tanks? Ever hear of the Arrow II antiballistic missile? Ever hear of Iron Dome? Ever hear of the Jericho II ballistic missiles? All of those and more more are ISRAELI invented and made in Israel!

BTW, in 1948 the US did not send Israel even a single bullet. IT was Czechoslovakia, thanks to Stalin, that sold the Jews the arms that saved them back then!

May. 20 2011 11:09 AM

fyi: jgarbuz from Queens

The American made M16 is the standard-issue weapon for members of the Israeli Army.

Without the US, Israel would not exist.

It's beyond time for Israel to negotiate reasonably and stop jeopardizing American national security.

May. 20 2011 11:04 AM

"The problem is arab intransigence on Israel's existence. "

Absolutely correct. But you can't act like that's the ONLY problem. Going back to '67 is the best way to tackle several problems, cuz fixing only one thing will not bring peace to anyone

May. 20 2011 10:59 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Israel's mistake in 1949 was in NOT driving to the Jordan river and driving all the Arabs across the Jordan river then at that time! I read a book about Jordan where then King Abdullah basically stated that he wondered why the Israelis stopped where they did, after they had succeeded finally in crushing Egyptian army, the Syrians, etc. They could have driven the Jordanian Army (then called the Arab Legion) back across the Jordan river and the rest of the Arabs along with them. Just shows, never pity or leave the enemy anything behind. Israel was within the 1949 Armistice lines, minding its own business, when Nasser decided to heat up things again.

May. 20 2011 10:59 AM
gary from queens

Last Sunday, Israel was invaded. more on that below. But today, obama called for israel to go back to its indefensible pre 67 borders, with the golan heights to be handed over to the tyrannical Syrian regime!!

Obama has hutzpah (gall). Israel cannot exist with an 8 mile wide border. Not with arabs seeking its destruction. The US is an ally of Israel. obama should never have gone public with a proposal that would harm its ally. But Obama hates israel. His actions demonstrates that.

Obama knows full well why arabs do not have a state of their own: The UN partition plan called for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab Muslim state. The Jews accepted that arrangement and petitioned the UN for statehood. The arab nations and arab residents of Palestine rejected the plan, because they rejected any jewish sovereignty in the mideast----a prohibition found in the Koran. The arab nations went to war and invaded Israel. Their rejection of statehood has not changed, because their rejection of Israeli sovereignty----the original precondition for arab statehood----has not changed.

23 muslims states in the mideast oppose the existance of the ONE tiny jewish state there. And Obama is turning the screws on our one real ally in the region.

Ehud Barak's latest Nakba
May 16, 2011, 5:10 PM
Caroline Glick

May. 20 2011 10:54 AM

... humiliating, subjugating and slaughtering innocent Palestinians will NOT (has NOT!) "created 'safe and secure' borders".

Time to try something NEW!

May. 20 2011 10:53 AM
gary from queens

What was most nauseating was Obama's moral equivalence. He equated israel's collateral damage in targeting Hamas rocket sites with Hamas' INTENTIONAL targeting of civilians. I can't be a proud American while this America hater is in the white house.

And he referred to Israel's occupation as a problem. First, only 4% of the territories are occupied. The PLO controls most of its land, and Hamas controls all of its land. Indeed, the palestinians have had a "state-let"----the equivalent of a state----for many years. Yet they have shown that they have no intention of accepting Jews in palestine or anywhere in the mideast. Statehood is not an issue. occupation is not an issue. Occupation is solely a response to violence against israel. The Jordanians and Egyptians refused to take back control of the territories, because it's better for israel to have that burden.

The problem is arab intransigence on Israel's existence. It has been that way under British "occupation" (British mandate); under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation; under Israeli occupation; and under essentially no foreign occupation. It's nothing to do with "occupation". That's why Obama's in house, Jew-hating-Jew, Dennis Ross, didn't want the dumb-ass President to give that speech.

May. 20 2011 10:52 AM
Renee from Queens

Attributing "anti-Semitism" to Hamas is preposterous. They are Semites too! It is wrong to confuse anti-Semitism with Palestinians simply wanting to be able to live with dignity on the land they have been on for generations. -A Jew in Queens

May. 20 2011 10:52 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Hey, the Jewish homeland, from the river to the Sea is in Jewish hands, and if the Arabs who happen to be living there want another state of their own, they have to bend to ISrael's demands, and not the other way around. Unless, someone can tell me which war Israel lost that it has to bend to the will of the Arabs, or even to that of the US. I don't recall any US GIs, fighting for Israel in 1948, '67,. '73 or since. ISrael is not Kuwait or South Korea or Vietnam. It has fought and won BY ITSELF and no one has the right to dictate surrender terms to Israel. Not even Obama.

May. 20 2011 10:51 AM

"Don't know how you can..."
Well, that's what negotiations are for, Elaine, so thank goodness that you're not the one at the table.

May. 20 2011 10:48 AM
D Franklin from NYC

"Every serious person thinks the new Palestine would be a demilitarized state"? Says who? Why? So they can't defend themselves when the Israelis come to take their homes and land?

May. 20 2011 10:48 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

IN 1947 the UN General Assembly authorized a "Jewish State" which was promptly attacked by 5 Arab armies in 1948, and the UN did nothing either to help Israel or to condemn the Arab invasion. So what if the UN General Assembly votes for the establishment Palestinian state? If ISrael invades it, will the UN do what it did in 1948, that is to say nothing?

The Arabs don't care what the UN rules, as long as it is in their favor and against Israel.+

May. 20 2011 10:48 AM
Elaine from baltimore

Don't know how you can have "safe and secure" borders in a country where at it's narrowest is 9 miles wide.

May. 20 2011 10:44 AM
Shantell from LES

Brian, saying "the Israelis do not like" is a broad statement. Israelis are NOT as black and white in their thinking as we portray them in the states. Why do you play along with the mainstream media and pander to neocons here in the states. Read Haaretzs!


May. 20 2011 10:41 AM

@Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

It's about time an American President actually made a timid, obvious remark addressing what has never been said and should have been said a long time ago!!!

Israel NEEDS to get in line!!


May. 20 2011 10:40 AM
Elaine from baltimore

There is no such thing as pre-1967 borders. That “green line” running through the West Bank is the 1949 Armistice Line. The armistice line was created solely because that’s where Israeli and Arab forces stopped fighting at the end of the War of Independence (with some added adjustments in certain sectors). It was as if the whistle blew and everyone dropped their gear. That 1949 line, that people call 1967 border, is really only a military line.

May. 20 2011 10:34 AM
bernie from bklyn

it's a breath of fresh air to hear an american president speak rationally about the situation in israel.

May. 20 2011 10:27 AM
Robert from NYC

It never ceases to amaze me how the meaning of anti-semite, anti semitic and all the derivatives therein get diminished by those who use them to describe ANY disagreement with or criticism of Israeli/Jewish policies or actions. It's as bad as labeling people Nazis who tend toward the authoritarian Right. It's time to stand up and stop backing away from such disagreements or criticisms. Don't be bullied into that submission. Speak your mind and stand by your convictions and defend them.

May. 20 2011 10:11 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

So this is what Obama does to Israel BEFORE his election, when he still needs Jewish money and support. If this closet anti-Semite gets a second term, without any further need for "useful idiots", imagine what damage he will do. Israel will lose its friend and ally of 60 years and its future will be imperiled.

Any Jew who votes for this man is insane........and the Israeli people shouldn't let this community organizer with no knowledge of the Mideast endanger what they fought so long and hard to achieve.

Let Coll spin this any way he wants....this is Obama taking the smiley-happy mask off and showing his true feelings about Jews.

May. 20 2011 08:30 AM

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