OPINION US president faces another cliff
How Barack Obama can overcome pro-Israeli uproar over appointing Chuck Hagel as defence secretary and allowing Al Jazeera network in the US remains to be seen
Washington: Believe it or not, Israel, led by the arrogant Israeli leader Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been dealt two American slaps in the face in the last few days, a blow it has never experienced since President Dwight Eisenhower compelled Israel and its two European allies, Britain and France, to withdraw their occupation forces from the Suez Canal during their 1956 war against Egypt.
This time around Israel and its influential allies within the US Congress and some lobbyist in the American Jewish community were shocked to learn that the popular Al Jazeera TV network has managed to buy an American television network allowing it to access 46 million American homes in the near future.
Moreover, President Barack Obama has surprised all by nominating Chuck Hagel, an independent-minded former two-time Senator from Nebraska and respected war veteran, and John Brennan, a 25-year veteran intelligence official and counterterrorism adviser at the White House as secretary of defence and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) respectively.
The uproar that ensued focused primarily on Hagel, who is currently a member of the faculty at Georgetown University in Washington, DC after retiring from the Senate in 2009, is described as one who believes “of the need for global answers to regional conflicts and an emphasis on so-called soft power, including economic and political aid, to bolster weak nations”.
The anticipated tough confirmation process is reportedly due to his criticism of the Iraq war launched during the George W. Bush regime, his support for talks with Iran, the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas and its Lebanese fellow travellers known as Hezbollah and, most importantly, his critical stance vis-à-vis Israel.
The decorated War veteran, who still has shrapnel in his body, was once quoted as saying “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up [in the US Congress]. But I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.” His reference to the Israel lobby as “Jewish” was surprisingly decried since it was said to border on anti-Semitism.
But M.J. Rosenberg, who had worked for 15 years for various US Congressmen, was surprised to note in an article he recently wrote for The Huffington Post, that “few Americans are paying attention to the Israeli election [set for January 22],” which he saw as “a sign that even the pro-Israel community is losing interest in and hope for Israel … now a source of pain.” In other words, “the prevailing [American] attitude seems to be to just look away and hope that things will improve the next time they pay attention.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in turn, believes that “there is no implicit obligation for the United States to follow like a stupid mule whatever the Israelis do.” The former national security adviser was talking recently to a group of Iranian Americans about reported Israeli plans to launch war against Iran this spring.
Meanwhile, a prominent US senator visiting Israel has called for a gradual reduction for US aid to Israel, which is about $3 billion (Dh11 billion) a year. Senator Rand Paul, whose father was a presidential candidate last year, explained that the US can’t afford to keep borrowing money and then handing it out to others, even to allies like Israel.
Whether Obama can overcome this uproar remains to be seen. The record so far has not been very encouraging, much as many thought he will succeed in winning support for Hagel. Dropping US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for nomination as secretary of state after a similar campaign has been a disappointment although the newly nominated Senator John Kerry has been applauded. Obama has also backtracked on an earlier nomination, that of Chas Freeman who was scheduled to chair the National Intelligence Council. Freeman was a well-known critic of Israel.
This hoopla underlines how important and praiseworthy have been the success of the widely popular Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based international television network to penetrate the American audience. Al Jazeera America, as it will be known, will have to tread softly here since all eyes will be watching every utterance. Nevertheless this is a much-needed effort since the American media has been by and large remiss in its coverage of the region and hardly eager to explain the complexity of the region. There is no doubt that this triumphant step will yield appreciation from all sides, as has been its award-winning record elsewhere in the world. Its director general, Ahmad Bin Jassim Al Thani, reports that “over 40 per cent the 150 million visits received by Al Jazeera English website in 2012 came from the United States”.
Will Youmans, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, who is writing a book on Al Jazeera English, which is seen in the US on a few stations, suggests that since few Americans are interested in international news “one alternative [for Al Jazeera America] is that it serve a small, but influential, cosmopolitan elite, much like The Economist [of London] does in print.”