Sharp pen, cruel tongue
'Anti-Semite' and 'Israel-hater' have become his middle names, and he has just met with a Hamas minister. During a recent visit here, veteran journalist Bob Novak lambasted Sharon, Olmert and Bush alike, and criticized Israel's role in the Iraq war.
Israel has fueled hundreds of columns that he published from 1963 on, in hundreds of American newspapers, together with Rowland Evans and without him. Over the course of 25 years, the Israeli-Arab conflict engaged the "Crossfire" program on CNN, on which he would duel with a liberal rival. During that whole long period, Robert (Bob) Novak, the (former) Jew in the most famous duo of commentators in the world - Evans and Novak - never set foot in Israel.
In an interview with him during the intermediate days of Passover, at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem, Novak relates that Israel aroused Evans's enthusiasm and, in fact, of the two, it was Evans who held the Israel "portfolio." Even after Evans retired in 1993 (he died in 2001), Novak was in no hurry to visit Israel. He came here for the first time only last spring. The initiators of the visit were his good friend Dr. Deal Hudson, the director of the Morley Institute for Church and Culture, and Crisis Magazine. They invited Novak to look into the situation of their Christian brethren in the Holy Land.
This year he came for the second time, again with Hudson and the people from the magazine.
"I came a year ago because of interest in the fate of the Christian population in the territories, which is suffering from the fence and from the restrictions on movement," explains Novak. "I had a look and I was bitten by the broader problem of the conflict. I saw the wall around Jerusalem, which is causing a great deal of suffering to the Catholic community and Palestinians in general, and I have seen fit to keep track of their situation."
Novak met with clerics in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Beit Sahur. In his discussions with his Christian hosts, he heard little about the contribution of their Muslim neighbors to the suffering of their community in areas of the West Bank with concentrations of Christians.
Novak also met with the Palestinian Minister of Education, Dr. Nasser Eddin al-Sha'er, of Hamas. Yes, Novak definitely knows that the organization is on the American administration's terrorism list. In one of the discussions on terror on his television program, he annoyed quite a number of Jews when he called Hamas "freedom fighters." "Anti-Semite" and "Israel-hater" have become his middle names as far as wheeler-dealers in the Jewish establishment are concerned. But also in the eyes of Israel's critics, some of his opinions - for example, the assertion that Ariel Sharon is the one who pushed President Bush into the war on Iraq - are considered to be almost hallucinatory.
Novak was born 76 years ago to a Jewish family in Joliet, Illinois. He studied Hebrew in Sunday school, blithely sang "Hatikva" and was called to the Torah for his bar mitzvah. He converted only nine years ago ("It is never too late to find faith," he says, in justification of the late start, offering a rare smile). He came to Washington for the first time after serving as an officer in the Korean War. He started out as a reporter for the Associated Press and went on to become The Wall Street Journal correspondent in Congress. He started publishing his joint column with Evans when he was 35. His sharp pen and cruel tongue won him the sobriquet "the prince of darkness," which he bears with unconcealed pride. In the 1980s, during the administration of president Ronald Reagan, he exchanged a soft liberal worldview for hard-core conservatism, including strong opposition to abortion. He also replaced his heroes, Democratic presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, with Republicans Calvin Coolidge (the 30th president of the United States) and Reagan. Both of them were known as conservative leaders, disciples of the free market and supporters of cutting the government's social expenditures and reducing taxes. Even though he is registered as a Democrat in the District of Columbia, Novak says he has not voted for any Democratic candidate for the presidency since 1964.
He has fond memories of Yitzhak Rabin, from Rabin's time as ambassador to the U.S. and as prime minister who, even though the duo of journalists did not spare Israel their criticism, kept in touch with them over the years. Novak makes a point of noting that his relations with Rabin never reached the degree of intimacy that prevailed between his conservative colleague William Safire of The New York Times and Ariel Sharon. "Every time Safire got stuck without a subject for a column, he would phone Sharon and extract a few quotes from him."
The first big crisis in his relations with the Jewish organizations, says Novak, erupted long before he was baptized. This happened in the wake of a column in which Evans and Novak assaulted Israel after the Israel Defense Forces attack in 1967 on the American spy ship Liberty, in which 34 sailors were killed and 171 wounded. The second crisis erupted after the the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Novak charged that Ariel Sharon had exploited the tragedy in order to divert the attention of President George W. Bush from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In innumerable columns and television programs, the Catholic conservative crucified the neoconservatives - particularly the Jewish ones, headed by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, close associates of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. He asserted that they had dragged Bush into the Iraqi quagmire.
In 2003, after the publication of ambassador Joseph Wilson's testimony refuting Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase enriched uranium in Niger, Novak blew the cover of the ambassador's wife, Valerie Plame, who was a Central Intelligence Agency agent. A special investigator who was appointed in the wake of the disclosure cast the blame for the leak on Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's then-chief of staff, and decided to bring him to trial. Later it emerged that Novak's source had been deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.
James Carville, Novak's liberal sparring partner on "Crossfire," slammed him for his conduct in the affair, and Novak threw the word "bullshit" at him, flung down the microphone and left the studio in the middle of a live broadcast. That was the end of his long romance with CNN. The Fox Network, his next station, hews to a clearly pro-Israel line, but Novak says that here, too, as at his previous network, he enjoys complete freedom of expression.
He entitled one of the articles he sent home last week "No hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace deal under Bush." In the column, which was published inter alia in The Washington Post, Novak wrote that no progress will be achieved without pressure from Bush on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He wonders whether Bush is the leader who will know how to take advantage of the historic opportunity that has presented itself in the wake of the Arab League's initiative.
Why do you aim your arrows at the Israeli leadership?
Novak: "I have formed the impression that the Palestinians are prepared to reach an agreement, and that if there were a more courageous leadership in the United States and in Israel, it would be possible to make the Arab League's resolution in Riyadh a lever for progress toward a peace agreement. Even though American citizens have been prohibited from meeting with Hamas people, because I am a journalist I have allowed myself to meet with the Palestinian education minister, Al-Sha'er, who is from Hamas ...
"Al-Sha'er praised the article by his colleague, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, in the Los Angeles Times, and said that he supports the positions that were presented there - to the effect that no Palestinian government is authorized to revoke the Palestine Liberation Organization's commitment in 1993 to recognize Israel's right to exist and to cease the use of terror. He told me that the suicide attacks had in the past led to the cessation of the negotiations with Israel on the future of the territories, and that they had no interest in their renewal.
"Last year I left here with the feeling that the disengagement from the Gaza Strip foretold better days. This year I found gloom on both sides. The Palestinians' situation has worsened, and the settlements have expanded. From Beit Sahur I had a clear view of the Har Homa neighborhood that has been put up to divide Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Israel will have to evacuate places like that. The good news is that the international community has softened its attitude toward Hamas and the Israeli government is no longer talking about a unilateral solution to the occupation."
Why do you insist on calling the war in Iraq "the Sharon war"?
"I am convinced that Israel made a large contribution to the decision to embark on this war. I know that on the eve of the war, Sharon said, in a closed conversation with senators, that if they could succeed in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, it would solve Israel's security problems. Israel was the big winner in the terror attack of September 11, 2001. Since then it has been enjoying complete freedom of action in the territories. I believe that Bush intended a two-state solution in all seriousness, but he is focused solely on the Iraqi issue."
Will the United States get out of Iraq soon?
"From the very first moment I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and I warned that it would end in catastrophe. As a conservative, I believe that the United States does not need to intervene in every place in the world. Rumsfeld admitted to me as early as 2002 that there is no proof that Iraq is connected to September 11.
"I believe that by the end of the year we will be out of Iraq. I would be very glad if we left there as victors, but I am very worried by the situation. The war has damaged our relations with friendly countries, like Turkey, and has weakened us vis-a-vis Iran. We definitely should not come to terms with nuclear weapons in Iran, but the Iranians are also aware that because of the situation in Iraq, it is not possible to enlist public support for an attack on them."