Commentary Magazine


Robert Novak’s Israel Problem

John’s mention of it in his obituary note put me in mind of my own first encounter with Robert Novak’s Israel problem. It was a CNN talk show a couple of months after 9/11, and the subject was Hamas, long before the group even made a pretense of running kindergartens and standing up government ministers.

Here is the transcript:

NOVAK: Can you imagine the audacity? Secretary Powell makes a very balanced speech, says they both have to do things, recognize each other’s existence. Prime Minister Sharon says, yes, that’s fine. Immediately the next day they have this attack on Hamas targeting, as they’ve been targeting ever since he came in as prime minister, people to be killed.

Now, the question all over the Middle East is: Is the United States going to take this conduct by Israel lying down, or are they going to say this is unacceptable behavior? And the one thing that was very disappointing about the secretary’s speech was he didn’t criticize the Sharon line that you have to have seven days without violence before he’ll sit down to even talk with the Palestinians. You can’t have seven days without violence if the Israelis are going to start the provocation.

SHIELDS: Al Hunt, since September 11, 90 percent of all the deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been on the Palestinian side.
HUNT: Well Mark, look, I think every administration come into office saying they’re going to stay out of that Middle Eastern briar patch; and it’s understandable why they want to, and none can. Margaret’s right: This administration only now is fully appreciating that; same thing with the Clinton administration eight years ago.

I thought George Mitchell has laid out exactly what has to be done there. And I think it really is quite even-handed, as I think the Secretary’s speech was. I think it was a good speech. And then we saw what happened.

And Bob, it wasn’t just the Israelis, it was also the Palestinians. And it seems to me that the great danger is that, look, neither Sharon nor Arafat is a day at the beach. But what’s behind them, in both instances, may be worse. I mean, Arafat has these terrorist who bring pressure on him. And if anything should happen to him, I think any success (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and Sharon’s been the poster child of the Israeli right the last 20 years, hears footsteps from Netanyahu on his right. That’s what’s so scary about this whole situation.

O’BEIRNE: Mark, this week Colin Powell called on the Palestinians to remove any doubt that they don’t support the right of Israel to exist. It’s not a question about which there’s any doubt. The PLO explicitly does not accept Israel’s right to exist.

Barak, Sharon’s predecessor, called Arafat’s bluff. He was willing to give more than Arafat ever dreamed he would get—share governing of Jerusalem. And Arafat either couldn’t our wouldn’t deliver. So why he remains the head of the PLO—he apparently can’t deliver, and he can’t keep down violence or—as I said, he plays a role in—or doesn’t want to.

Powell also talked to the intifada which, we should remember, Arafat launched last year. He said it’s self-defeating violence. Well, we’ve got to make darn clear that it’s self-defeating. All of a sudden this administration’s talking about supporting a Palestinian state. They flirt with the notion that terrorism, used as a negotiating tool, does work.

And after September 11, it seems to me, it should be harder and harder for us to urge Israelis to have this incredible restraint when civilians are routinely attacked. Every Israeli family has a gas mask in their home. And they’ve now slipped into Israel and killed a Cabinet secretary.

NOVAK: I think—well, of course, the Israelis have been killing all kinds of leaders in the Palestinian movement. But I think . . .

O’BEIRNE: It was self-defense.

NOVAK: Oh, self-defense? It’s an attack.

I can’t imagine, Al, anybody worse than Sharon. I mean, the idea that he’s a good guy is just part of the propaganda.

But I am just amazed—I am always amazed how American conservatives can get involved in this absolutely mindless support of the transigent (ph) Israeli policy. And there’s one other thing . . .

O’BEIRNE: They just don’t have a right to exist.

NOVAK: No, it . . .


NOVAK: The thing that General Powell said, which I think is exactly correct, is that the Israelis have to accept a Palestinian state. And they—and Sharon won’t do that, and either will his friends in this country. And that is the main thing that’s holding up the whole process.

CARLSON: The Palestinians throw bombs into pizza parlors and cafés and discos. They killed a civilian yesterday. The Israelis killed a senior official of Hamas. He is, himself, a terrorist.

NOVAK: Well, why do you call him a terrorist? I mean, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

CARLSON: No . . .

NOVAK: They’re trying to get their own land in the . . .


CARLSON: Bob, you’re the only people (sic)—you’re the only person who would call Hamas freedom fighters.

NOVAK: Oh, no; people all over the world do.

HUNT: I don’t disagree with what you said about Sharon; but are the Palestinians willing to accept, as Powell said they must, a Jewish state?

NOVAK: Will Arafat? Yes. I think Arafat will. Will all his followers? No. But you have to start negotiating; Sharon won’t even negotiate.

You surely don’t defend that, do you?


O’BEIRNE: . . . negotiated, it got him nowhere and Arafat wouldn’t . . . (CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: See, that’s the attitude—that’s a bad attitude . . .   

Many of Novak’s obituarists have noted his elan. Clearly, he had the appeal of those (we all know the type) who do not dress up their vanity or let personal pettiness get in the way of doing business. But that he let his moral judgment be overwhelmed by his nasty Israel problem speaks to poor character and a fundamental untrustworthiness.

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