The Cable

"I Hate Israel Handbook" Author Welcomes His Haters

"They've helped sell my books," Max Blumenthal said Wednesday about the critics of his controversial and newly-published book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

Blumenthal was smiling before a seated audience at the New America Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank, which itself came under attack for hosting the event for Blumenthal's book. To critics, Blumenthal is an anti-Israel smear artist. The Nation's left-wing scribe Eric Alterman called his work the "‘I Hate Israel' Handbook" and labeled him a "profoundly unreliable narrator." Commentary's right-wing writer Jonathan Tobin called the book "trash" and ripped New America's president Anne-Marie Slaughter for associating her institution "with a book that smears Israelis as Nazis." In the mainstream American press, Goliath's detractors outnumber its supporters. But Blumenthal isn't bothered.

"The fact is, a balloon needs hot air to rise," he told the crowd. "I thank them on some level."

The "hot air" Blumenthal spoke of has followed him across the country as he supports his book -- a 500-page indictment of Israel's treatment of Palestinians based on four years of research and reporting in the country. To supporters, Blumenthal is an unapologetic truth-teller.

"The only worthwhile, honest discussion of Israel can come from someone who possesses two attributes: fearlessness and expertise," wrote former Guardian journalist and provocateur Glenn Greenwald in praise of Goliath. "Max Blumenthal wields both in abundance, and the result is an eye-opening and stunningly insightful book."

But praise from established Israel critics hasn't made the book tour any less rocky. Goliath has ruffled D.C.'s foreign policy establishment and reaffirmed the radioactive nature of the Israel-Palestine debate in the U.S.

In October, the conservative Florida Family Association called on members to flood the inbox of an Arizona hotel hosting an event featuring Blumenthal. "Americans who are concerned about Max Blumenthal's propaganda ... have the First Amendment Right to complain about this event," read an FFA bulletin. (The group also organized against Electronic Arts for allegations about gay stormtroopers appearing in a Star Wars video game).

In a November book event at the Dallas World Affairs Council, Blumenthal said event staffers told him that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee "called and demanded the event be shut down." A representative for AIPAC tells The Cable the charge "is not true -- completely false."

Last week, Tobin attempted to shame the New America Foundation out of hosting Wednesday's book chat. "NAF has crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach," he wrote. "By doing so they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right."

That the book is controversial is unsurprising. With chapter titles such as "Concentration Camp" and "Night of the Broken Glass," critics charge that Blumenthal is implying an equivalence between the Jewish State and Nazi Germany. That the book would be deemed unfit for public events, however, strikes some as overly-zealous.

"If a think tank can't have a book event, we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing," Peter Bergen, the event's moderator, told The Cable. "It was a public event and if they wanted to challenge [the book], it was open to anybody who wanted to come."

Bergen characterized the controversy surrounding the book as one of style versus substance. "The critiques of your book seem to be not as much about the facts," he said during the event, "it's more about the tone in the book."

But that doesn't mean the think tank wasn't prepared for significant or even violent blowback. On Wednesday, NAF sent out an all-staff e-mail notifying employees "we are hosting an event which requires additional security." Elevators up to the event required a key swipe.

Surprisingly, Blumenthal didn't take any flack during the event's Q&A segment, which attracted a sympathetic crowd of Middle East enthusiasts who commended Blumenthal on his dedication to the topic. The kumbayas ended during the book signing when a reporter for the right-wing news site Washington Free Beacon asked Blumenthal if he was concerned about a positive review of his book by a white supremacist -- an endorsement Blumenthal did not solicit.

 "I am not answering your questions or speaking to you," Blumenthal told the reporter. "I'm not speaking to you."

The Free Beacon has made the controversy surrounding the book an editorial priority, including one article centered on Blumenthal's father, a longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton confidante. "I don't consider them to be a site that wants to do anything but smear me or publish one derogatory post after another," Blumenthal told The Cable. "It just shows how desperate they are."

Though Blumenthal brushed off criticisms of his book with humor, he pushed back hard against the perceived double standard of acceptable Israel-focused discourse in Washington.

"Naftali Bennett just spoke at the Brookings Institute and there was no effort to prevent him from speaking at the premier think tank in Washington," he said, referring to Israel's economy minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. "I don't know that there necessarily should be [an effort to censor him] even though Naftali Bennett recently endorsed the decision ... to bar religious Jewish women from volunteering in hospitals after 9 p.m. for fear that they would date Arab doctors."

He went on to list the various book events in which Israel advocates protested his presence. "I'm not surprised by it," he said. "But I am impressed by anyone who stands up to this suppression as the New America Foundation has done."

New America Foundation

The Cable

U.N. Warning: Chemical Inspectors Face New Risks in Syria

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expressing grave concern about the safety of international inspectors overseeing the destruction and removal of Syria's chemical weapons program -- just as the project enters its riskiest phase yet.

Ban voiced his concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, which provides fresh details on international plans for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. A copy of the letter, which had not been made public yet, was posted on the web site of a reporter from Arab language broadcaster Al Hurra. Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch* national who heads the U.N.-backed joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, will brief the Security Council on Wednesday on Ban's letter.

The joint mission, comprised of 15 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 48 U.N. personnel, is preparing the ground for the latest and most perilous phase of the operation: transporting large quantities of chemical agent through a war zone to the Syrian port of Latakia, where they will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels, and then transferred to American vessels for destruction at sea, according to diplomats.

Ban said the U.N. has received assurances from the warring parties to cooperate in the transport of chemical materials. The Syrian government, which will take the lead in packing and trucking the toxic materials to the port, has continued its "constructive cooperation" with the mission while "representatives of the Syrian opposition based in Istanbul have also indicated their support for the safe transportation of convoys containing chemical material."

"Nevertheless, recent fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic shows that the security situation is volatile, unpredictable and highly dangerous," Ban's letter adds. "The Director General of the OPCW and I remain deeply concerned about the safety and security of the joint mission personnel."

Ban voiced particular concern about the safety of the mission's main headquarters in Damascus, saying the U.N. is currently installing "security enhancements" to reinforce protection. All armored U.N. vehicles, he noted, have been equipped with communications and tracking systems, and staff have received extra security training. "Despite these measures, the facility remains vulnerable to certain risks, and the joint mission is actively exploring viable alternative locations to base its activities, should the security situation require it," he wrote.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck a September 14 landmark agreement calling for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014.

The pact -- which averted a U.S. strike against Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people -- has largely gone smoothly. The OPCW confirmed on October 31 that Syria completed "the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable."

But the latest phase -- which calls for the destruction of chemical weapons materials outside Syria -- has been dogged by setbacks. Several countries, including Norway and Albania, have refused requests to oversee the destruction of the chemicals on their soil. The United States, which had promised to loan those countries mobile labs capable of converting chemical warfare agents into a far less toxic waste material, has since agreed to destroy the materials itself a sea.

Ban's safety concerns come as the U.N.'s chief humanitarian relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, told the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on Tuesday that living conditions are sharply deteriorating in Syria. After many delays, the Damascus government has taken modest steps to finally allow relief workers access to some of the country's worst-hit areas.

Syria is facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 250,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, facing the threat of starvation.

Amos told the 15-nation council that the Syrian government has vowed to lift a few bureaucratic hurdles that have hindered the U.N. relief effort in Syria, pledging to grant 50 new visas to relief workers. On some of the most pressing issues, however, Damascus has given little ground.  

"We have seen some modest progress in terms of administrative procedures," Amos told reporters after the council briefing. However, she added, "on some of the more difficult areas -- protection of civilians, demilitarization of schools and hospitals, access to besieged communities and also cross-line access to hard-reach areas -- we have not seen any progress."

Last week, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. "The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations," Syria's U.N. envoy Bashar al Jaafari wrote to Ban last week.

Amos said that Syria had also acceded to a long-standing U.N. request to open humanitarian hubs in three towns, Aleppo, Suwayda, and Qamishli. But she said Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels' military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. Amos added, "They see crossing the Turkish border as a red line."

(* An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sigrid Kaag as a Dane. She is Dutch.)

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch