The two crises are distinct, but there is only one American government to navigate them, and it is doing poorly. Israel caught a good break when (presumably) Ukrainian separatists shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine: for days it almost completely diverted the world’s attention. The shooting was almost certainly an accident: the rebels had previously shot down Kiev government troop carriers, and would have no conceivable reason to down a Malaysian civilian carrier. Killing 300 non-combatants is a horrific, if not unprecedented, act; the last time a tragedy of this scope occurred was when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf in 1988, mistaking it for a warplane.
Vladimir Putin, whose government supplied to the rebels the anti-aircraft missile, should acknowledge the error, and express regrets. Yet the source of the Ukraine crisis remains exactly what it was before the downing of MA-17: an aggressive Western move to wrest Ukraine into the Western sphere, culminating eventually in Ukrainian NATO membership. It was the West that encouraged and fomented the coup d’etat which ignited the Ukrainian civil war. The ever present-minded media tends to ignore or overlook this: perhaps the only mainstream American or European writer who strives to keep this context in the public mind is the redoubtable Peter Hitchens, whose regular column and blog in the Mail Online is one of the few mass media venues making any effort to understand the crisis historically.
Obama seems shrunken by the dual crisis. On Monday, he publicly hectored Vladimir Putin to compel the Ukrainian rebels to allow free access to the crash investigators (which of course they should); meanwhile the White House is cranking up new sanctions against Russia, whose main fault lies in having taken measures to prevent Ukraine from being turned into a NATO outpost. (Twenty years hence, if China is sponsoring anti-American coups in Mexico, the anti-Putin brigade may get a taste of how Putin feels.) What most grated about Obama’s statement was its patronizing tone. But its implicit assumption, that Moscow bears direct responsibility and should be punished for whatever the Ukrainian rebels do with weapons supplied to them merits some scrutiny.
If Moscow is responsible, how responsible then is America for the death toll Israel is ringing up in Gaza, which includes hundreds of innocent civilians, many of them children? Unlike the Ukrainian rebels, the Israelis are well trained and know exactly what they are doing. Do the senators who pass unanimous (100 to 0, North Korea style!) resolutions supporting Israel bear responsibility for Israel’s actions?
How responsible is John Kerry, who—in what bids fair to be the single most absurd sentence ever uttered by an American Secretary of State, says “Israel is under siege” by Hamas. Do you suppose Kerry knows what restrictions Israel imposes on Gaza, under “normal circumstances”? Israel controls the population of Gaza, deciding literally who gets in and who gets out. It controls whether Gazans can import spare parts for the devices to help purify their water. It controls whether Gazans can build an airport, or whether Gazans can leave to go to a university. Israel controls whether Gazan fisherman can fish in the seas. And yet, America’s leading diplomat, announces, with a straight face, that Israel is under siege by Hamas. Does Kerry realize that Hamas’s official ceasefire demands—which are of course never mentioned by the American media—are almost entirely devoted to lifting Israel’s siege of Gaza?
And yet one can see the glimmerings of an American media jailbreak. AIPAC can apparently influence what John Kerry says, what Obama says, what 100 senators can say about the Mideast. But bit by bit signs of residual professionalism in the American media are seeping through. Wolf Blitzer on CNN spends a lot of time interviewing Israeli defense analysts, but something compels him to give a respectful hearing to Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti. Hannan Ashrawi appears on ABC. This might not be happening without a deepening wave of American Jewish revulsion about Israel’s conduct, which summons, in ways perhaps no gentile voice really can, a deeper examination look at the moral dimensions of Israeli policy. When the prominent author like Naomi Wolf posts on her facebook page that
[E]very law of war and international law is being broken in the targeting of civilians in Gaza. I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany. I stand with the people of Gaza because no one stood with us.
it puts the Israeli assault in its proper context.
Major media organizations have not gone that far, of course. But having some reporters on the ground in Gaza during Israel’s onslaught makes this different from Israel’s other wars. And when a CNN reporter can tweet out her visceral reaction to the sight of Israelis gathering in a makeshift amphitheater to cheer airstrikes on defenseless Palestinians, it is a sea change in consciousness. AIPAC may still hold sway on Capitol Hill and inspire fear in the executive branch, but it can’t forever keep the lid on all of what Americans see and hear about the Mideast. Already there are sharp divergences between American public opinion and the lobby-whipped minions on Capitol Hill. It seems inevitable that one day an American government will reflect these realities.