Bill Stewart – at least 20 years past his prime.

Once again Bill Stewart misunderstands the Middle East (“Middle East inches toward disaster” Santa Fe New Mexican December 9, 2017 or click Bill Stewart 12-9-17 Middle East inches toward disaster for a pdf version).  It doesn’t matter how many times we point out the errors of his ways, his anti-Israel bias is so deeply ingrained that he can’t get out of his own head to understand the region.  In this case Stewart was writing about President Trump’s December 6 announcement that he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and initiating the move of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  (See our commentary on the embassy move here.)

There are just so many errors in Stewart’s column, that we can’t re-state them now.  Many of these errors have been pointed out in past SFMEW blog postings.  For prior blog posts on Stewart use the “Search” function on the right hand column.  We wonder:  when is the last time Stewart visited the region?  Spoke with any true experts who study the area?  Re-examined his own anti-Semitic bias?  Even read anything authoritative other than (usually uninformed) newspaper accounts of the region.

Let’s take Stewart’s opening statement:

I have argued in this column for many years that the most fundamental problem in the Middle East is the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Despite the rise and fall of ISIS and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, I still believe this to be true.

Let’s see what a knowledgeable observer, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who just visited Saudi Arabia, wrote about this in Foreign Policy, “Mohammed bin Salman Doesn’t Want to Talk about Jerusalem” (December 14, 2017, emphasis added):

Saudi Arabia, the protector of Islam and home to its two holiest sites, is a good place to judge the impact on President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on U.S. interests in the region.

Set aside the reaction of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and their state sponsors in Tehran and Damascus. And the angry responses from the Palestinian Authority and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with its large and boisterous Palestinian population, were certainly to be expected. The real question is how America’s friends one step removed from the circle of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would react. If there were a place one might reasonably expect to hear Muslims expressing thunderous outrage at the handing of Jerusalem to the Jews, it would be in the corridors of power in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

It didn’t happen.

Last week, I was in Riyadh leading a delegation of more than 50 supporters and fellows of the Middle East think tank I direct. On Wednesday, just hours before the president made his Jerusalem announcement, we spent five hours in meetings with three different Saudi ministers, discussing everything from crises with Yemen, Qatar, and Lebanon, to the kingdom’s ambitious “Vision 2030” reform program, to the possible public offering of the state oil company Aramco.

By this time, the White House had delivered numerous background briefings to foreign diplomats and the media, so the essence of the impending declaration was well known. But despite many opportunities, the word “Jerusalem” was never uttered.

That was even after the group met with Muslim World League secretary-general Muhammed Al-Issa.  When Satloff’s group met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the deputy prime minister, minister of defense, president of the council of economic and development affairs, and favorite son of the king,

If we hadn’t asked him directly about Trump’s [Jerusalem] announcement, it may never have come up.

 He certainly didn’t come to the meeting to vent.

But we wanted to leave Riyadh with a clear sense of his view on the issue, so we asked him. To maintain a measure of confidentiality, I won’t quote him directly, but I can say this: He limited himself to a single word of disappointment about the President’s decision — literally — and then quickly turned to where Riyadh and Washington could work together to limit the fallout and restore hope to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

He didn’t stop there. On a day widely characterized as one of the darkest for U.S. relations with the Arab world in decades, Mohammed bin Salman offered a very different vision for both the Saudi-American relationship and a potential for Saudi-Israeli partnership.

On the former, he repeatedly affirmed the strength of the security partnership, which he proudly noted was the oldest in the region — even older than the one between the United States and Israel. And on Israel itself, he struck an unusually positive note. Unlike what I heard from Saudi leaders on past visits, he said nothing about Israeli expansionism, Israeli arrogance, Israeli unfairness, or Israeli encroachment on Muslim rights in Jerusalem. Instead, he spoke of the promising future that awaited Saudi-Israeli relations once peace was reached and, operationally, he committed himself to bringing that about.

This says reams about Stewart’s view – which is so out of touch and out of date the New Mexican continues to deal irresponsibly by keeping him as a columnist on world affairs.

Aside from his uninformed viewpoint, Stewart is misleading in his arguments about Jerusalem.  Here are just a couple of errors in his column:

  •  Embassies in Jerusalem – Upon the establishment of the State of Israel the UN had offered to make Jerusalem an international city.  This was rejected by the Arabs, who then attacked Israel.  Stewart says that the pre-1967 status of a divided Jerusalem was “As a result of the first Arab-Israeli war…” but indeed it was a result of the rejection of internationalization of the city by the UN resolution of 1947, the rejection of the existence of the State of Israel, and the result of Jordan and Iraq attacking Israel from the east.  Jordan then destroyed Jewish holy sites in East Jerusalem, and did not allow freedom of movement of Jews to visit holy sites.

But Stewart argues (emphasis added), “Because of the delicacy of the situation, no major country moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem…”  But at least 16 countries did move their embassies to Jerusalem: Three [of these embassies] were African nations – Ivory Coast, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Kenya; eleven were from Latin America –  Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela, opening embassies as early as the 1950s; as well as the Netherlands and Haiti.

Are any of these countries “major?”  See our prior post for more information about this.

  • UN Security Council Resolution 242 – Perhaps more egregious than the misleading statement about embassies is Stewart’s clearly misstated explanation of UN Security Council Resolution 242.  This resolution did not call for the return of “all occupied territory in return for a peace agreement.”  The history of this resolution has been clearly and unambiguously reported by historians, legitimate journalists, and the US ambassador to the UN at the time (1967) and former Supreme Court Justice, Arthur Goldberg, who negotiated the language of the resolution with the interested parties.

What is clear is that the resolution does not require withdrawal from “all” the territories Israel acquired in the 1967 war.  Here is a re-cap:

On October 29, 1969, for example, the British Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons the withdrawal envisaged by the resolution would not be from “all the territories.” When asked to explain the British position later, Lord Caradon said: “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”

Similarly, Amb. Goldberg explained: “The notable omissions-which were not accidental-in regard to withdrawal are the words ‘the’ or ‘all’ and ‘the June 5, 1967 lines‘….the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.”

The resolutions clearly call on the Arab states to make peace with Israel. The principal condition is that Israel withdraw from “territories occupied” in 1967, which means that Israel must withdraw from some, all, or none of the territories still occupied. Since Israel withdrew from 91% of the territories when it gave up the Sinai, it has already partially, if not wholly, fulfilled its obligation under 242.

Given Stewart’s historical bent in this specific column one would hope he’d at least get his facts straight. Alas, not so.

The rest of the world press proclaimed a cataclysm with Trump’s December 6 pronouncement.  Given that the rest of the Arab world could care less about the Palestinians (to wit, Satloff’s experience in Saudi Arabia), that the reaction of the rest of the world has been muted compared with the predictions, that Dennis Ross’ thesis in his book (and reiterated in his talk in Santa Fe earlier in 2017) that the Israel-Palestinian conflict does not fuel most of the unrest in the Middle East that is not an area of concern by other Arab countries unless it suits their leaders to raise it for internal domestic political reasons, we stand by our criticism of Stewart, and our prediction about the movement of the embassy, which so far has been accurate:

there will be a couple ‘days of rage’ outside of the Palestinian territories, and then everyone will settle down.  Inside of the West Bank and Gaza that ‘rage’ may persist for a bit longer, but eventually it will die down as well.  The Palestinian ‘street’ really doesn’t want another intifada.

We’d recommend you write to the New Mexican and tell them it is time for Stewart to go; they need to get an international commentator who is realistic, up-to-date, and not biased about Israel in the Middle East.  It is the duty of a newspaper to provide accurate information, even on the editorial pages.  Information on writing to the New Mexican can be found here.

SFMEW is a beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.