Heeding Helen

June 18, 2010 - 6:02 PM
Maybe, instead of easing Helen Thomas out the door, we should have listened more closely to her.
Maybe, instead of easing Helen Thomas out the door, we should have listened more closely to her.
 
Thomas, who always seemed to be trying to stir up controversy with her provocative comments during White House news conferences in recent years, ended up creating her own media whirlwind. But as usual, the mainstream media is missing the point.
 
On May 27, an anonymous rabbi with a video camera asked her if she had any thoughts on Israel. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas spewed. “Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland.” Thomas added that Israelis should leave the Middle East and “go home” to Germany, Poland and the U.S.
 
Within days, the 89-year-old Thomas had been shuttled into retirement by Hearst Newspapers, and the explanations began.
 
Journalist Jon Ward penned a piece for The Washington Post’s June 13 Outlook section explaining that Thomas had been overcome by the elements. He explained that he helped her that day. It was oppressively hot “as she walked in her slow shuffle along the White House’s North Lawn driveway.” It was, apparently, while Ward was hailing her a cab that Thomas made her fateful comments.
 
Ward insists we’ll miss Helen Thomas (that’s even the title of his piece). “As zany and obvious as Thomas’s journalism-turned-advocacy had become, is there something the White House press corps could learn from her attitude?” he wonders.
 
Her long-time nemesis doesn’t think so. “I think those remarks were offensive and reprehensible,” Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “I think she should and has apologized, because obviously those remarks do not reflect certainly the opinion of, I assume, most of the people in here and certainly not of the administration.”
 
That’s probably true. But.
 
The words do seem to reflect the opinion of prominent Palestinian leaders. “Helen Thomas offered the official Hamas position, as far as I can tell,” explained The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
 
Hamas, a terrorist group, is also the democratically elected government of Palestinian Gaza. If we’re looking for a point in Thomas’ rant, it should be this: Many Palestinians -- perhaps even a majority -- think the same things she said. They want Israelis to “go home” and turn over the land that is now Israel to them.
 
We don’t hear that often enough in the U.S. For decades, a series of American administrations have focused on keeping a “peace process” alive. Our policy has been to tell Israelis they should trade “land for peace.”
 
Sometimes it’s even worked. Israel handed back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for a peace deal, and made similar concessions to Jordan in return for international recognition. Yet in recent years, Israel has turned over land, but not been paid back with peace.
 
The Israeli government pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, and terrorists used the vacated areas as launching pads for attacks on Israel. In 2005, Israel withdrew completely from the Gaza strip, forcing thousands of settlers to leave. That area has become a Hamas stronghold in the years since, and also the launching point for thousands of rocket attacks on Israel.
 
Former President Jimmy Carter encapsulates the Inside the Beltway viewpoint on this issue. Yet, typically, he comes at it exactly backward. “There are many questions as we continue to seek an end to violence in the Middle East, but there is no way to escape the vital one: Land or peace?” Carter wrote in The Washington Post in 2000. He meant that he thought Israeli settlers were blocking the “peace process” by building homes on disputed land.
 
But the Israeli government has been willing to remove settlers, often at gunpoint. Has a Palestinian authority ever attempted to crack down on its extremists?
 
It’s worth wondering if there can be, or ought to be, such a thing as a peace “process.” If both sides in a dispute want peace, there will be peace. If one side refuses to acknowledge the other’s right to exist, there won’t be peace.
 
That’s a truth seldom heard from the White House. So, imagine that: after years of irrelevance, Helen Thomas finally managed, on her way out the door, to be useful. Even if she didn’t mean to be.