Countering Bias and Misinformation mainly about the Arab-Israel conflict

An open letter to NY Times columnist Tom Friedman

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About Maurice Ostroff
From Maurice Ostroff

An open response to Tom Friedman's article in the right hand column

February 18, 2011


Dear Mr. Friedman,
 
You're an enigma. (From the Greek aenyme to speak in riddles). You are deservedly a widely read columnist, the author among others of that stimulating book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded:.." and the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes. You served as Times' Jerusalem Bureau Chief and your two daughters were born in Israel.
 
The riddle is why a person of your superior intellect and experience allows undisguised animosity to Israel to cloud your otherwise sound judgment. I refer for example to your
article in June last year in which you accused Israel of winning the Lebanon and Gaza wars by what you called Hama Rules after the Syrian town of Hama, where, in 1982, President Hafez el-Assad put down a Muslim fundamentalist uprising killing more than 10,000 of his own people. It is surprising that you omitted the fact that the Syrians employed chemical warfare, that Amnesty International estimated that the number of dead was estimated to be up to 35,000 and that you are not sensitive to the absurdity and odiousness of the comparison that you make.
 
The allegations in your February 12,
NY Times op-ed that the Israeli government frantically told the US president that he must not abandon Pharaoh, and that the  White House was thoroughly disgusted with its Israeli interlocutors is equally offensive. Your insulting allegations can be regarded only as libelous fictions unless and until you substantiate them. And in this connection I quote your own words from your NY Times article of November 16, 2010 in which you wrote "When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem.. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together".
 
Contrary to your version of the Israeli reaction to the Egyptian revolt, PM Netanyahu's approach was straightforward and beyond reproach. He said that the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and that Israel's goal is to ensure that these relations continue. "Of course", he said, "at this time, we must show maximum responsibility, restraint and sagacity and, to this end, I have instructed my fellow ministers to refrain from commenting on this issue.  Naturally, we are also holding consultations in the appropriate government forums," and he added that he had spoken with US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  (Jerusalem Post, January 30)
 
It is obvious that you don't judge others as you do Israel. You criticize Israel for supposedly siding with Mubarak, yet you find no fault with open support of Mubarak in the Washington Times. For example on
January 31,  Tony Blankley author of "American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century" wrote that support of President Hosni Mubarak is likely to serve both US geopolitical interests and its ability to shape that regime in the interest of the Egyptian people and that ill-considered support for a revolution that is more likely to result in a government adverse to US and the Egyptian people's interests. He added that if America undercuts its ally of 30 years, the US would be seen as feckless - and this would undermine the value of its support for allies current and future.
 
Nor are you perturbed by the personal telephone call on January 29, by
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who told President Obama not to humiliate Mr. Mubarak and warned that he would step in to bankroll Egypt if the US withdrew its aid program, worth $1.5 billion annually.

But most disconcerting is your attempt to downplay the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and your refusal to treat the issue rationally. That the threat is real was demonstrated for example in October last year when the renowned Christianne Amanpour, well known for her documentaries on Islam,
hosted a panel discussion during which Anjem Choudary, a former British solicitor and Muslim cleric, stated unambiguously  that eventually you'll see global Islamic rule including in the United States. He said "We do believe as Muslims the East and the West will be governed by the Sharia,.. Indeed we believe that one day the flag of Islam will fly over the White House".

After all, it is not Israel alone that feels threatened. An editorial in the
Washington Times of February 10 had this to say. "Theres been debate about the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most likely of the radical successors to Mr. Mubarak and an organization the State Department accepts as a fact of life in Egypt. On Sunday, President Obama conceded, 'There are strains of their ideology that are anti-U.S. Theres no doubt about it.' More to the point, theres little about their ideology that doesnt threaten America".
 
"This week, Palestinian Media Watch published a translation of a lengthy treatise from 1996-2002 by Mustafa Mashhur, leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, titled Jihad is the Way. It contains a simple summation of their political program: Allah is our goal, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our constitution, the Jihad is our way, and the Death for Allah is our most exalted wish.
 
"
The Muslim Brotherhood believes jihad is an obligation for all Muslims for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state and strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world. This fight to impose hardline Islamic law is not limited to the specific region of the Islamic countries but extends to the entire world. The banner of Jihad has already been raised in some of its parts, Mr. Mashhur writes, and it shall continue to be raised, with the help of Allah, until every inch of the land of Islam will be liberated, the State of Islam will be established.
 
For those still unclear about the concept - or for hair-splitters like Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, who waxes philosophically about jihad as a peaceful act of religious purification - Mr. Mashhur explains, The symbol of the Brotherhood is the book of Allah [the Koran] between two swords. The swords symbolize Jihad and the force that protects the truth represented in Allahs book. One mans purification is another mans religious war".
 
 
Since, in the wake of the Egyptian revolt, the Muslim Brotherhood is widely discussed by opinion makers who have absolutely no knowledge of Arabic, it is indeed fortunate that the aforementioned work "
Jihad is the way" has been translated  into English by  Itamar Marcus and analyst Nan Jacques Zilberdik. This document should be read by every commentator who wishes to base his/her opinions on facts rather than preconceived opinions.
 
The Suez Canal is a major lifeline for the economies of Europe and the United States and it is fair to ask whether you have considered the concerns not only of Israel but of all oil dependent nations about the possibility of the Suez Canal coming under control of an extremist group. Even while looking forward to a true democracy replacing Mubarak, no responsible politician (or journalist who assumes the prerogative to give advice) can responsibly avoid considering and preparing for this eventuality.
 
Of course the optimum situation would result from following Sharansky's advice  which reflects the Israeli view most accurately namely If the free world helps the people on the streets, and turns into the allies of these people instead of being the allies of the dictators, then there is a unique chance to build a new pact between the free world and the Arab world.
 
Last June you wrote
an article strongly criticizing CNN for firing their editor Octavia Nasr for publishing her sympathies on the death of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who she called one of Hezbollahs giants whom she respected a lot. While I understand your empathy for Nasr, I am disturbed by your omission of any mention of Fadlallah's role in the 1983 attacks on Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 US Marines, his statements in favor of suicide bombings, his description of the Mercaz HaRav massacre as heroic and the fact that President Clinton froze his assets because of his suspected involvement with terrorists.
 
 Nevertheless I agree entirely with your statement "A journalist should lose his or her job for misreporting, for misquoting, for fabricating, for plagiarizing, for systemic bias but not for a message like this one" and with great respect, I suggest that when you look in the mirror while shaving tomorrow morning, you ask yourself whether you are completely free of misquoting and bias.

This letter is being widely circulated as will a response that I hope to receive from you.

Sincerely
Maurice Ostroff
 

NY TIMES

 

Postcard From Cairo, Part 2

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Published: February 13, 2011

 

For anyone who spent time in Tahrir Square these last three weeks, one thing was very obvious: Israel was not part of this story at all. This was about Egypt and about the longing of Egyptians for the most basic human rights, which were described to me by opposition Egyptian newspaper editor Ibrahim Essa as “freedom, dignity and justice.’’ It doesn’t get any more primal than that. And when young Egyptians looked around the region and asked: Who is with us in this quest and who is not?, the two big countries they knew were against them were Israel and Saudi Arabia. Sad. The children of Egypt were having their liberation moment and the children of Israel decided to side with Pharaoh – right to the very end.

 

It is so ironic, because one of the signs that was hanging in Tahrir Square all this past week was: “If Mubarak is Pharaoh, we are all Moses.’’

 

I am more worried today about Israel’s future than I have ever been, because I think that at time of great change in this region – and we have just seen the beginnings of it – Israel today has the most out-of-touch, in-bred, unimaginative and cliché-driven cabinet it has ever had.

 

Rather than even listening to what the democracy youth in Tahrir Square were saying and then trying to digest what it meant, this Israeli government took two approaches during the last three weeks: Frantically calling the White House and telling the president he must not abandon Pharaoh – to the point where the White House was thoroughly disgusted with its Israeli interlocutors – and using the opportunity to score propaganda points: “Look at us! Look at us! We told you so! We are the only stable country in the region, because we are the only democracy.’’

 

Israel’s government seemed oblivious to the irony of its message: “We are your only reliable ally because we are a democracy and whatever you do don’t abandon Mubarak and open the way there for democracy.’’

 

What is really unfortunate is that everyone can or should understand Israel’s strategic concerns. They are totally valid. The peace treaty with Egypt has been the cornerstone of Israeli strategy and economic growth for 30 years. Israel has scrupulously abided by the treaty. Of course Israelis are worried about convulsion here. How could they not? But the way they are handling themselves, is not helping them.

 

You did not need to be a Middle East expert to see that what was breaking loose here in the past three weeks was unprecedented – the first ever, largely bloodless (except for what the regime did), Facebook-driven, youth-led democracy uprising in an Arab country.

 

And what it exposed was that Mubarak’s stability was the stability of a dead hand. It was the stability of a leader who was presiding over a country where 40 percent of the population is living on $2 a day and 35 percent are still illiterate. It was the stability of a leader who had contempt for his people’s ability to run their own affairs. And that faux stability is now over.

 

Israel has one of the most dynamic high-tech sectors in the world. Israelis should understand better than anyone that stability is totally 20th century. In a flat world, it is all about dynamism now and how you manage constant change. Or as a Lebanese analyst here said to me, the right business model in today’s world is: “If it ain’t broke, break it – before your competition does.’’ 

 

 Well, that’s what happened here. The ferocity and popularity of Mubarak’s ouster should have told Israelis that they need to get to work immediately on building a relationship with the dynamic new popular trend here, not to be trying to cling to a dictator who was totally out of touch with his people.  And, as we sit here today, the popular trend is not with the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, what makes the uprising here so impressive – and in that sense so dangerous to other autocracies in the region – is precisely the fact that it is not owned by, and was not inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

It is so much more powerful than that. As I said, it is being propelled by the most basic, universal human emotions – a quest for freedom, dignity and justice. That is what the other Arab autocracies – and Iran – fear. It is not about anything narrow, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, America or Palestine.  It cannot easily be pigeon-holed and delegitimized. Most of all, it is not about some populist upsurge that craves restarting the war with Israel. It is all about a people who crave the chance to restart their own future, their own lives.

 

 

 The Obama Administration and its utterly out-of-touch envoy Frank G. Wisner did not get this early on. But President Obama, or actually, Barack Obama – because he seemed to finally shuck off all his own expert advisers and give voice to his real, personal feelings – eloquently got America back in line with the real currents here with his post-Mubarak speech.

 

 All Israel had to say was that it appreciated the long years in which President Mubarak had kept the peace, but that it now stands in awe of the Egyptian people’s quest for dignity, freedom and justice and the Israeli people look forward to working with whatever democratic government Egyptians build. Very simple.

 

 I thought the one Israeli figure who totally got it right was former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who, in a long-interview with the Jerusalem Post’s editor David Horovitz last Friday, said, according to Horovitz, “that partnerships with dictatorships are unsustainable – that people cannot permanently be repressed, that they will push for freedom the moment they sense weakness in their tyrannical leaderships. In his assessment, Israel and the West are fortunate that this Arab revolution is unfolding in countries still closely tied to the West, in societies yet to have been battered into an overwhelming retreat toward Islamic fundamentalism.’’

 

As Sharansky put it in his own words: “If the free world helps the people on the streets, and turns into the allies of these people instead of being the allies of the dictators, then there is a unique chance to build a new pact between the free world and the Arab world.”

 

I think he is exactly right – not because I know where Egypt is heading, or because I think it is on some smooth track now toward certain democracy. It is because I don’t know where Egypt is going. I just know this: the old order here has been broken. When it comes to Egypt, stability has left the building. The only question left is what kind of unstable Egypt is Israel going to have on its borders – an Egypt where the military clings to power and fights the people, like Pakistan, and in the process radicalizes the radicals even more, or an Egypt that, with many ups and downs, is led by the people and gradually finds its way toward a democratic future that makes it look like South Africa or Indonesia one day.

 

It is the latter dynamic Egypt, not the dead stable Egypt of Mubarak, that Israel should want, because that is a country that will be focused primarily on catching up with a world that has left its people behind. Israel has very little to contribute to democracy-building in Egypt. Egyptians don’t want Israel’s help. But the Egyptian people will remember its hindrance.

 

 If that dynamic democratic Egypt does come into being one day, Israel will have no choice but to make peace with 80 million Egyptians – instead of with just one man. And if that is the case, then Israel needs to be making it clear from today – exactly what Sharansky said – that it wishes the children of Egypt the same success on their road to freedom as all other peoples.

 

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