Jeffrey Goldberg is a well-known journalist and blogger who writes for The Atlantic and Bloomberg View. A former Israeli soldier and a veteran American journalist, Goldberg has deep ties to both the Israeli and American political establishments. He has been characterized by the New York Review of Books as "the most influential journalist/blogger on matters related to Israel."
In part because of his access to Israeli and U.S. officials, Goldberg's journalistic work on Israel is sometimes described as "agenda setting." In October 2014, for instance, he published a piece in which he described a "senior Obama administration official" referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "chickenshit." According to Goldberg, the official added that the good thing about Netanyahu is that "he's scared to launch wars," and the bad thing about him is that "he won't do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians."
The piece, in which Goldberg also described U.S.-Israel relations as having reached a "full-blown crisis," forced Secretary of State John Kerry to phone Netanyahu in an effort to distance the White House from the alleged comments.
Goldberg has been affiliated with a number of other media outlets over the years, covering various beats for the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, and New York Magazine. He has also worked as bureau chief for the Forward and as a columnist for the hawkish Jerusalem Post. Before joining The Atlantic in 2007 he was based at The New Yorker.
Generally characterized as a liberal hawk, Goldberg tends to espouse a hawkish view of the Middle East, often arguing that the threat of U.S. military force is critical to American foreign policy in the region. He was an early supporter of the Iraq War, has urged a more interventionist U.S. policy in Syria, and has long supported the threat of military action against Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, though he has also expressed varying degrees of support for advancing sanctions and diplomacy in lieu of force.
One of Goldberg's favorite subjects is Israel, where he spent his college years serving as a prison guard in the Israeli military.
A Washington Post review of Goldberg's 2006 book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew across the Middle East Divide, relayed several biographical details about Goldberg's background and his relationship with Israel. "Goldberg grew up in a family of liberal Democrats and attended a socialist Zionist summer camp," the paper reported. "Like many other young American Jews, he grew up with next to no religious tradition but with a strong sense of Jewish identity. … That sense of identity impelled Goldberg to move to Israel after college and, in 1990, to join its army. He ended up in the military police and did his mandatory army service as a guard at Ketziot, the vast, desolate prison camp that Israel set up in its southern desert to hold the Palestinian rebels of the first intifada, which broke out in 1987."
Goldberg's experience in the Israeli military led him to criticize its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Although he has often directed his criticism at Palestinian authorities, Goldberg supports a two-state solution and has remained an outspoken opponent of Israel's settlement project, which is generally considered illegal under international law. "It is pro-Israel to be in favor of a settlement freeze, and in favor of jump-started negotiations with the Palestinian Authority," he wrote in a 2013 commentary. "There is no other way out of the trap in which Israel finds itself. Most Israelis, according to the polls, believe in preserving both their country's Jewish character, and its democracy. This is not possible to achieve so long as millions of Palestinians are ruled, against their will, by Israel."
Goldberg reiterated his views in a 2014 obituary for Ariel Sharon, the late Israeli prime minister who rose to prominence as an aggressive military commander but decided in 2005 to remove all Israeli settlers and military personnel from the Gaza strip (although Israel has subsequently maintained tight control of Gaza's borders, air space, and sea coast). "Sharon, through the same force of will that propelled him heroically across the Suez Canal, and sent him deeply and disastrously into Lebanon, did something hugely important for his country: He began to disentangle Israel from the lives of the Palestinians," Goldberg wrote. "Settlers will never return to Gaza. That is an achievement." But, he added, "Continued settlement of the West Bank, and continued entanglement of Israel in the lives of millions of Palestinians, will eventually be his country's undoing. A way out must be found."
Despite his criticism of the occupation, Goldberg has staunchly defended many of Israel's most controversial actions, including its 2014 attack on Gaza, which killed well over 1,000 Palestinian civilians. Blaming the conflict on Hamas, Goldberg claimed, "What Hamas wants most is not a state in a part of Palestine. What it wants is the elimination of Israel. It will not achieve the latter, and it is actively thwarting the former." Even as Israel bombed hospitals, mosques, thousands of private homes, and UN bomb shelters, Goldberg blamed the conflict's rising and lopsided civilian toll on Hamas. "Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible," he wrote. "Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas."
Goldberg's column led the Electronic Intifada's Ali Abunimah to call him "one of the most prominent defenders of Israel's bombardment that has killed more than one in every one thousand Palestinians in Gaza." Abunimah also took the occasion to allege that as a prison guard in Israel, Goldberg had "participated in and helped cover up the torture and abuse of Palestinian prisoners," linking to an excerpt from Goldberg's book Prisoners in which Goldberg recounted watching a fellow soldier brutally beat an unarmed captive and then lying to a superior about what he had witnessed.
Playing the "Anti-Semitism" Card
Notwithstanding his own occasional criticisms of Israeli policies, Goldberg has frequently attacked critics of the U.S.-Israel relationship, sometimes disparaging them as anti-Semites.
He has referred, for example, to Harvard Professor Steve Walt—coauthor of The Israel Lobby, a controversial 2011 book arguing that right-wing "pro-Israel" advocates had exercised a deleterious influence on U.S. foreign policy—as a "grubby Jew-baiter," a charge Philip Weiss said was "preposterous and outrageous" and was offered with "no evidence whatsoever." Goldberg has also taken aim at anti-Zionist progressives, attributing their critiques of Israel to what he calls "Apartheid Substitution Effect," or "the desire of some well-meaning leftists to experience again the excitement of the anti-South Africa divestment movement of the 1980s."
In 2010 comments to the neoconservative writer and Hudson Institute fellow Lee Smith, Goldberg called Walt "a throwback to the 1930s. In the '30s," he purported, "the isolationists rode the Jews as a hobby horse. They tried very hard to marginalize American citizens of the Jewish faith by questioning their loyalty. These guys don't even understand what ancient terror they're tapping into. What's original, what makes this period alarming, is that The Washington Post Company would give a Jew-baiter a platform."
Some of Goldberg's critics argued that by accusing his rivals of anti-Semitism, Goldberg was attempting to insulate himself from charges that he was too close to Israel to write objectively about U.S. policy in the Middle East.
"For Goldberg, a major AIPAC neocon, all critics of Israeli policies are anti-Semites by definition," wrote MJ Rosenberg, a former AIPAC officer who later became a staunch critic of the Israel lobby. "But why is he obsessing about Walt so much now? It is because, in August, Goldberg is coming out with his big Atlantic piece calling on the United States to bomb Iran so that Israel does not have to. But Goldberg has a problem. As an American who chose to serve in the Israeli army (he was a guard at a Palestinian prison camp), he fears that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer—who accused the Likud lobby of promoting war with Iraq in their groundbreaking bestseller—will point out that Goldberg is just about the least credible advocate for war with Iran. I mean, think about it. How many Americans are so dedicated to Israel that they join its army and take its citizenship? I'll tell you. A couple of thousand since 1948."
Goldberg uses a slightly different tactic when attacking Jewish critics of Israel, once referring to them as "anti-Zionists-with-Jewish parents." Wrote blogger Philip Weiss, "He's not saying anti-Zionist Jews. He's saying we had Jewish parents. He's not even calling us non-Jewish Jews. … This time we don't get to be Jews. Thus he equates Jewishness with Zionism, entirely."
Like his writings on Israel, Goldberg's columns on Iran—which fluctuate between urging tougher action against the country and calling for restraint—often receive considerable attention because of his access to high-level officials in both Israel and the United States, which has included exclusive interviews with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2014) and U.S. President Barack Obama (2012).
Goldberg has backed some aspects of the Obama administration's approach to Iran. For instance, in September 2013, Goldberg wrote approvingly of the administration's various hard-nosed measures aimed at Iran's nuclear program, writing: "Obama has crippled the Iranian economy by organizing some of the harshest sanctions imaginable, and he has stated repeatedly that he won't allow the Iranian leadership to acquire a nuclear weapon. The constant displays of American military might in the waters off of Iran these past four years, coupled with clear statements that the U.S. would use force to thwart the regime's plans, have also impressed Iranian leaders." He concluded that "Barack Obama's toughness" was "the one main reason why Iran is making conciliatory noises about its relationship with the U.S. and about the future of its nuclear program."
However, Goldberg frequently claims that Iran is dedicated to developing nuclear capability and that military action may be necessary to stop it. He has criticized Obama administration advisers for "undermining" the president by "analyz[ing] publicly the dangers of a military confrontation," claiming that such cautionary notes encourage Iranian leaders to "breathe a sigh of relief, and make the calculations that Obama is bluffing on military action." (The Daily Beast's Ali Gharib disagreed, writing, "Were the administration not willing to publicly discuss the potential consequences with its public, then the threats better be a bluff—because to launch this war without a national dialogue would be a monumental disservice to American democracy, not to mention irresponsible.")
In late 2013, Goldberg joined a host of generally right-wing critics in warning that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected that year on the promise of reaching a diplomatic accommodation with the West, was less moderate than he appeared. "Rouhani has been a superior soldier for Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a defender of the regime, and an anti-American propagandist for much of his professional life," Goldberg claimed. "Until proven otherwise, there's no reason to think that Rouhani, who is acting on Khamenei's behalf, is ready to shut down his country's nuclear program, despite airy statements to the contrary."
Although Goldberg voiced some support for the Obama administration's subsequent participation in international negotiations over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, he hinted in 2014 that he saw the negotiations primarily as a stepping-stone to military engagement. "Trying to resolve this crisis peacefully is indispensably important," he wrote, "even if only to justify later, more dramatic, responses to the Iranian threat."
Earlier, in the September 2010 issue of The Atlantic, Goldberg published a widely reviewed article considering the plausibility of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, arguing that there was a better than 50 percent chance of such an attack by early 2011.
Based on dozens of interviews with Israelis in and out of government, the article, titled "The Point of No Return," went to great pains to convey the psychology of the leadership in Israel—particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—as it debated what to do about Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Despite the overwhelmingly negative potential consequences of an Israeli attack, Goldberg argued, Israel would feel obliged to make an attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities because of the perceived existential threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons arsenal, and the Israeli leadership's lack of faith in the Obama administration's claim that "all options are on the table" to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb. Israel considers Iran "the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people," Goldberg wrote. "They will not be asking for permission" to strike Iran.
Writing for the Inter Press Service, Eli Clifton commented that the article seemed to be "part of a campaign to push the Obama administration into authorizing a U.S. military strike." He added: "A consensus appears to be forming in neoconservative circles that the best way to force the Obama administration to launch a military attack on Iran's alleged nuclear facilities is to convince the White House that Israel is prepared to attack with or without a green-light from Washington. Of course, to make this threat work, hawks need to convince the White House and the U.S. public that the Israelis just might be foolhardy enough to attack unilaterally."
But in other writings, Goldberg has pushed back against advocates of striking Iran, at least before other options have been explored. "Sanctions, Stuxnet, and various other programs designed to deny Iran a bomb seem to be working for the moment, so before we launch a strike with unpredictable consequences, let's give these other methods a chance to work," he wrote in 2011. While Iran's nuclear program potentially posed an "existential threat" to Israel, Goldberg argued, "for America, Iran represents a serious threat, but not one to its existence. … I know the arguments on both sides of this question, and I'm convinced that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities will only help strengthen the regime's stranglehold over Iran's unhappy citizens."
Goldberg has criticized the Obama administration for its reluctance to intervene in Syria's civil war, faulting the White House for not aggressively arming rebel factions fighting against the Syrian regime. "If [Obama] hadn't vacillated early on [in his] support for Syria's rebels (who weren't always this radicalized), we might be facing a slightly different situation today," Goldberg wrote in 2013, attributing the rise of radical Islamists among Syria's rebel groups in part to the Obama administration's lack of support for other factions.
Although Goldberg's own support for Syria's rebels wavered as they became increasingly dominated by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, he supported the Obama administration's plan to launch airstrikes on regime targets following accusations that Bashar al-Assad's forces had used chemical weapons—an effort that was ultimately suspended in the face of widespread popular opposition and a timely offer by Russia to help dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal. "I don't like the administration's Syria policy," he wrote in September 2013. "I wish it would work harder to remove the men who use chemical weapons, not just the weapons themselves, and I have almost no hope that the Putin-led plan will work. But Obama has managed, by threatening force, to buttress the international taboo on the use of poison gas."
Goldberg has also held out hope that the administration's reluctance to intervene in Syria could make it more willing to eventually attack Iran. "Obama's unwillingness to engage militarily in Syria may ultimately make it more likely that he will one day strike Iran's nuclear facilities, should sanctions and negotiations fail to push Iran off the nuclear path," he wrote in an October 2013 column attempting to assuage Iran hawks. "Think of it this way: If Barack Obama were today bogged down in Syria in some fashion, it seems extremely unlikely that he would possess the maneuverability, domestically or internationally, to launch strikes in yet another Muslim country. As all but the most myopic Obama critics acknowledge, the president is no pacifist when it comes to targeting Muslims he believes pose a danger to the U.S."
In 2002, as neoconservatives and other foreign policy hardliners were gearing up to push the United States into war with Iraq, Goldberg published a high-profile article in the New Yorker entitled"The Great Terror," which spotlighted the case for invading the country, in part by using discredited sources—both in Iraq as well as in the George W. Bush administration—to argue that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda.
Despite the article's severe flaws—many of its claims proved to be erroneous—it proved influential among war hawks and credulous media outlets. In awarding Goldberg a prize for best reporting on human rights, the Overseas Press Club (OPC) stated: "In this exposé of the crimes of the Iraqi regime, Goldberg described Saddam Hussein's horrifying gas attacks against Kurdish villages, investigated ties between Iraq and al Qaeda terrorists and explored the scope of Iraq's chemical weapons arsenal. Goldberg spent six months on this assignment, often from places that were off limits to western journalists. A former CIA director, James Woolsey, called the story 'a blockbuster.'" The OPC neglected to note that Woolsey was one of the key neoconservative proponents for attacking Iraq.
During the lead-up to the Iraq War, Goldberg made media appearances and published several articles criticizing opponents of an invasion for being naïve about Middle East politics. He made exaggerated claims about the Hussein regime's efforts to weaponize biological agents and grossly underestimated the impact of an invasion. The effort prompted one observer to write: "In urging war on Iraq, Goldberg took highly dubious assertions—for example, that Saddam was an irrational madman in control of vast quantities of WMDs and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were deeply in bed together—and essentially asserted them as fact. From these unproven allegations, he demonstrated that an invasion of Iraq was the only rational policy."