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Citizen Gabbay…A New Shaul?

June 24, 2007

June 24, 2007

Citizen Gabbay…A New Shaul?

I awoke Thursday to several early morning phone calls. With an air of disbelief and some cynicism, several friends asked if I had seen the Rocky Mountain News story (June 21, 2007) on Shaul Gabbay, director of the Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East (ISIME) at the University of Denver. He is soon to become a US citizen.

No, I hadn’t. Hard to, as I don’t read the paper.

Ever since Holger Jensen, their S. African born international affairs reporter, left the paper, I stopped reading the Rocky regularly. Hard as it might be it to believe, I am getting along famously without its many pearls of wisdom. Although admittedly difficult to confirm, my hypothesis remains that `The Rocky’ and Jensen parted ways in part because of his unsparing criticism of the Israeli Occupation and the opposition that his reporting triggered in Denver. Jensen also took Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regularly to task. No radical, his views seemed to more or less mirror those of the State Department. Still he was one of the fairer and more knowledgeable commentators on foreign affairs to grace this state, and, I still regret his departure from the paper and wonder about why and how it happened.

Jensen’s tenure at The Rocky ended with a small note in publisher John Temple’s insipid weekly column that went something like: So long Holger, it’s been good to know you. Bye bye, a pretty demeaning departure notice for a nationally syndicated Scripps Howard columnist. Was some kind of post nuptial agreement or deal cut? a generous retirement/severance package in exchange for Jensen’s silence? I don’t know, but it is said that a group of Denver rabbis danced the hora to mark Jensen’s departure/demise and that a number of Jensen’s former colleagues at the News’ editorial department shed no tears either.

The same newspaper that shed crocodile tears over Jensen’s departure ran a sympathetic story on Shaul Gabbay, the director of the Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East (ISIME), in the June 21 Rocky Mountain News edition. Gabbay is about to become a US citizen. Congratulations Shaul! He is photographed improvising on the piano and quoted asserting his commitment to a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s all touching albeit a bit curious, the Rocky Mountain News’ human touch emerging. The picture of an Israeli-now-turned American moderate on Israeli-Palestinian peace making emerges.

The Rocky story comes a few weeks after Gabbay circulated an email of his travels to Israel, his meetings with a number of Israeli think tanks and peace organizations. It was forwarded to me by some locals in the peace movement who, wanting very much to believe, were [perhaps too easily] moved by its content and seeming re-commitment to peace. In line with the Rocky story, the email suggests a conscious effort on Gabbay’s part to reposition himself somewhat on the Israeli-Palestinian debate from his outspoken almost reflex-like, slavish and very public defense of Israel’s policies – he has been considered nothing less than Israel’s mouthpiece in the Rocky Mountain region – to someone of a more moderate, peace-seeking position. `Maybe he has changed?’, a friend wrote me. Of course, while not impossible that he has experienced a political epiphany, it is rather unlikely, even if he and those around him have put no small amount of political energy into giving the appearance of `a new Shaul’.

While never that close to ISIME (although its office is located near mine), several years ago I was involved in a joint event (the sponsoring organizations being Priority Peace – a short lived Denver peace group – and ISIME) which brought an Israeli and a Palestinian supporter of the Geneva Accord to Denver. It was a good¸ well attended event which enriched the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this region. I was – and remain – committed to genuine dialogue among those interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace making but have been repeatedly struck by how stilted, how controlled, how unrepresentative have been many of those `dialogues’ – so much so that they weren’t dialogues at all. I believe that the Geneva Accord event was an attempt to break such a mold and was not surprised to hear afterwards, that some of the Denver rabbis who were in attendance didn’t like it.

The new, kinder, softer Shaul comes after a somewhat trying year for both ISIME and Gabbay, culminating in a minor crisis last summer during the abortive – but highly destructive – Israeli air and land offensive against Lebanon. Much work had been done – with whose help I do not know – to shape his image as a media star and to vigorously promote his many public appearances. As he had done repeatedly in the local media in the past, Gabbay was prominently in the public eye unabashedly supporting Israel’s side of that conflict.

Even before the Israeli attack on Lebanon, there was much skepticism about ISIME and Gabbay. As a result, ISIME’s credibility as an even handed, serious academic institution whose goal is conflict resolution and Israeli-Palestinian peace making was largely shattered. The Rocky Mountain News seems to be a part of an effort to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall.

Of course he has every right to take such an indefensible position – even if it disappointed local Jewish moderates who had hoped for a more constructive approach. The problem lies elsewhere. Gabbay wanted and couldn’t have `his cake and eat it too.’ It’s a little difficult to defend targeted assassinations, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Wall, the continued oppressive Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to cynically hammer away the same clichéd half truths one has heard for the past 40 years to justify Israeli policies – and at the same time, claim to be a moderate with friends and connections in the peace movement. That contradiction could not last forever and in the summer of 2006 it blew up in his face.

A few months after the fighting in Lebanon had died down, in the fall, I learned that even at staid DU, some of those involved in ISIME were critical of Gabbay’s public role, and with ISIME’s public advocacy of Israel during the 2006 summer war in Lebanon. Gabbay had made a number of public statements and ISIME’s email list had been used to garner support for Israeli actions. Although he was reappointed as executive director of ISIME the decision was taken not without criticism and controversy. Although I only learned about it several months after the fact (without soliciting info on the subject) concerns were expressed that the institute had produced no significant research on the Middle East, (true enough) that it was one-sided in its support of Israel and that it lacked credibility within the larger community as an objective, academic oriented institute. These criticisms echoe those informally shared with me by many DU students disappointed by the lack of academic support they got in their efforts to do serious study of Middle East issues.

While ISIME has invited a slew of people, experts to speak at DU, the pro-Israeli bias of most of them stood out in glaring fashion. The very few Arabs and fewer Palestinians invited to participate over the years were often cherry-picked, unrepresentative types. In recent months, in response to criticisms, ISIME has tried to clean up its act a bit. To date, the results have been rather modest, at best.

Put less kindly, ISIME and Gabbay himself were seen as more or less an Israeli public relations operation, little more. Whatever hope remained that ISIME might represent a new, more balanced, fairer voice on Middle East issues essentially evaporated some time ago. This was not a perception limited to a few voices within ISIME but is echoed throughout Denver, not least within the state’s peace movement. As the institute is based at the Graduate School of International Studies within the University of Denver, both GSIS and DU are implicated at least on some level as well. Perhaps that is why there was some push for change?

So while congratulating Shaul Gabbay on attaining US citizenship…he’ll have to do more than improvise on the piano or write an email to convince some of us that there is content to his changed image. The question remains: is the new Shaul any different in substance from the old one. Time will tell.

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