January 31, 2011

As Egypt hits critical mass, what is Israel thinking? Or not.

It is ironic that a Jewish State cannot bear to see the writing on the wall. Amid U.S. concern that 40 years of support for the Sadat and Mubarak regimes may compromise Washington’s influence in the new Egypt, reports that Israel is CURRENTLY lobbying Western powers to keep Hosni Mubarak in power are astounding. 
In the final hours (or months) of the Mubarak regime, and with a good chance that the army and/or a broad coalition government will emerge, it seems unwise for Israel to draw further negative attention to itself. Worse, after selling itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East” since forever, Israel chooses THIS MOMENT to rebrand itself to the world as realpolitik over democracy? 

Is there anything to be gained by this awkward approach? Will France and Britain suddenly bolster Mubarak out of concern for Israel's sensibilities? One might almost think Israel's career diplomats were still on strike...
Israelis may be worried about an Islamist takeover in Egypt, having just gained one Islamist government to their north, in Lebanon. What happened in Beirut earlier this month -- a Hezbollah-controlled government has taken power -- was the result of a long-running and long-expected political transformation, not a sudden surge of popular support.
There are no ultimate guarantees in any peace process. Some scholars, like Daniel Pipes, have insisted that Israel should not make agreements with Arab states until they become democratic. Only a democracy, presumably, can be relied upon to honor a treaty of peace, because a dictatorship is liable to be overthrown. Essentially, this is an argument against Israel ever making peace with its neighbors, even if it's the state of war that helps those dictators hold on to absolute power (see under: Syria).

January 28, 2011

Egypt's last-minute democracy

There are limits to what the United States or any outsider can really impact in a country like Egypt. Egypt has been the indispensable Arab nation (pre-Arab, in fact) in war and peace, and in economics, for thousands of years.

President Hosni Mubarak has long played a double game with his Western sponsors. On the one hand, he pleads for more support because the stakes are so high and his regime is threatened. But when admonished to increase political participation, he says there's no need for drastic measures...

Mubarak has had 30 years to incorporate organic forces of change and reform, but he has remained static, like the temples of Luxor, channeling the flow of the Nile and the arc of the sun. He has manipulated Egyptians and Westerners by freezing out all non-extremist opponents, leaving only the Muslim Brotherhood as the unpalatable alternative to his continued despotism.

So now, in the absence of meaningful institutions of civil society and  are we faced with the possibility of a popular overthrow and turbulent aftermath, and/or a genuine military takeover with even greater repression than before. Or life will return to normal. Predicting the future is still so challenging.

January 27, 2011

Why Jews should champion full funding for global U.S. assistance

The Jewish community has long believed that a large overall U.S. foreign assistance budget helps guarantee the significant piece of the pie going to the State of Israel. As it threatens drastic cuts to overseas spending, a deficit-weary Congress has reassured Israel's supporters that funds for Israel will remain the same, no matter what.

So why should Jews push now for full funding of the Administration's foreign assistance request, and risk angering the new Republican majority in the House?

For most Jews, and for the broader pro-Israel community, protecting Israel at the expense of other accounts (all of which are smaller) raises the specter of bad publicity -- literally, an embarrassment of riches. Although Israel remains an embattled outpost of democracy in the Middle East, are we ready to see urgent humanitarian crises be shortchanged while prosperous Israel continues to receive billions? One need not come at the expense of the other.

Aid to Israel is truly a bargain, as we tell our fellow Americans and Members of Congress. But so is assistance to depressed economies and trouble spots around the world. We advance democracy and trade opportunities, public health and strategic stability in dozens of countries for less than one percent of the federal budget and a fraction of what we had to spend after the fact in Iraq and Afghanistan. And trade means economic growth, and jobs here in the States.

Aside from the "PR" and pragmatic arguments, there is a broader case to be made. U.S. global leadership has been instrumental in securing the Jewish state, protecting Jews in communities abroad, and making the world a better place. As Jews, we have a special responsibility based in our history -- from Sinai all the way to the Holocaust -- to make the world a better place. 

There have always been Republicans and Democrats who questioned whether the rest of the world is America's responsibility, and there have always been leaders on both sides who said, "Yes, it is." And the same holds true today.

At least on this issue, we as Jews should stand on the side of global engagement and leadership.

January 26, 2011

This week it's Tunisia, but remember Zimbabwe?

Tunisia is in the middle of a stunning, popular revolution, and democracy advocates are pushing for Egypt to be next. The leader of Cote d'Ivoire refuses to cede power following his electoral defeat. South Sudan is on the verge of independence and possibly further violence.

One man has special reason to be pleased with this turn of events: Robert Mugabe, the onetime revolutionary turned corrupt despot, who has overstayed his tenure as President of Zimbabwe. Remember him? I had almost forgotten about him. Last autumn, all eyes were on Zimbabwe, where Mugabe was violating the terms of his power-sharing arrangement with the winners of the last election. He is no longer the Most Despised African Leader, and Zimbabwe is not even in the news.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted this week that he was caught off guard by the democratic fervor in Tunisia, a former French colony. So were we all. Every now and then, there are mass demonstrations throughout Africa and the Middle East, and Western leaders cannot afford to risk security and economic stability on the chance that one freedom movement might succeed. But we do love to celebrate their success, after the fact.

Will nations commit more funds to developing civil society internationally, as a result of Tunisia's early success, the challenges of Cote d'Ivoire and Zimbabwe, or the near-totalitarian stasis in Egypt? Will they make democracy and human freedom true priorities of their foreign policy? What put Tunisia over the top was its own population and its own civil society, not some organized strategy of the international community.

January 25, 2011

Provocative settlements, provocative UN resolutions, and no peace

The Palestinian delegates to the United Nations are within their rights to push a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank (or any resolution at all), and the United States is within its rights to veto such a resolution.

The United States may no longer be the indispensable nation in every corner of the globe, but in the Middle East it still is. If there is one nation that can influence Israel more effectively through direct engagement, it is the United States. This has been a major consideration behind countless U.S. vetoes against Security Council resolutions that were one-sided and/or politically motivated. What will be gained by changing course at this sensitive juncture?

The United States and Israel are strategic allies, and the UN is certainly no stranger to friends standing up for friends... and far worse. Violators of international law -- even outright genocide -- are routinely exempted from UN condemnation, despite often strong efforts by the United States and others. If the UN were known for acting on principle in every instance and nations voted on the basis of international law rather than specific relationships and strategies, the world would be a safer and better place. But that's just not the case.

January 24, 2011

Obama and Bibi - the way we weren't

Ben Smith writes today about President Obama and his administration effectively giving up on their effort to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend himself further in the politics and diplomacy of peace with the Palestinians. There is nothing punitive in the U.S. determination, since there's no longer a hope of it making any impact going forward. Those who were most invested in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal have left the White House, and President Obama has bigger fish to fry, at home and abroad.

With Ben's analysis (which reflects a broadly shared view), Israelis can breathe a sigh of relief. But soon, the novelty of Washington looking the other way will wear off and Israelis will remember that Israel's single greatest asset has been -- and remains -- U.S. interest and engagement. They might even lapse back into despair about the lack of any realistic, long-term grand strategy for normalizing their national politics and security.

One additional point, which one of my colleagues had noted (anonymously, for now), regards Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. By overselling himself to both Netanyahu and Obama as the key liaison between Jerusalem and Washington, without any disclaimers, Barak distracted the American side from the very real challenges and pitfalls of their efforts -- and from the fact that any substantive prospects are confined to the Prime Minister's Office. In the end, as his political metamorphosis last week underscored, Ehud Barak currently has no base of support among Israeli voters and no constructive influence within the Netanyahu government. His presence in the otherwise right-wing coalition is useful in confusing, distracting and frustrating the Prime Minister's cabinet of rivals.

In the short run, Israelis cheer their leaders when they stand up to American "arrogance" and "naivete". But over time, the erosion of Israel's place on America's top priorities may come back to haunt Netanyahu and -- more importantly -- all Israelis. So, enjoy this moment, while it is still relevant.

January 21, 2011

Israel's foreign minister can't get a break

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is learning that having lots of seats in the Knesset does not guarantee power within the coalition government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to keep Ehud Barak in the desirable post of Defense Minister, even though Barak's new party, Atzmaut, only has five seats -- and they've even gained a second portfolio. What's more, the ruins of the Labor Party -- which Barak had led into the coalition nearly two years ago and cast aside this week -- can no longer claim a seat at the government table, nor can it mount any credible opposition to Netanyahu.

Lieberman's management style and blunt diplomacy have drawn criticisms from the career foreign service. A snowballing labor dispute over the Foreign Ministry's embarrassingly low wages has compounded the equally low staff morale. The resulting paralysis of Israel's diplomatic machinery hurts Lieberman, especially given his personal stake in the Russian President's visit that had to be canceled due to the strike.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is able to deal directly with foreign leaders, using his own loyal staff -- even if the strike is resolved, the Prime Minister's Office will end up with increased control over foreign policy (one of Netanyahu's perennial objectives).

Since the foreign minister has been conspicuously absent from most Palestinian-related diplomacy and U.S.-Israel relations, he made extensive visits to Africa and Latin America. Recent weeks have seen a snowballing of Latin American governments lining up to recognize Palestinian statehood, so by default Lieberman will be blamed for one of Israel's biggest diplomatic catastrophes (certainly as understood by right-wing Israelis) in years. Because of his lack of popularity with the Ministry staff, he will also be blamed for the strike, which has put Israeli diplomats out of commission just when they are needed most.

Lieberman and his right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, will most likely remain in the Netanyahu government, and Netanyahu certainly needs those votes in Knesset. And whether one agrees with Avigdor Lieberman or not, he may be the most ideologically principled member of that government. But his influence and effectiveness will continue to be limited by circumstance and the political ambitions of others.

January 20, 2011

Israel's Labor Party finds its principles a bit too late

Labor Party Members of Israel's Knesset (MKs) and their supporters are outraged that Party Leader and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has split off to form his own party, Atzmaut (Independence). His deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu includes an additional ministerial portfolio, which is impressive for a new party with only five MKs.

Here's the real question, which to their credit a number of Labor Party members have asked in the months since Barak brought Labor into a coalition government with the Likud and other right-wing parties: What was Labor doing in this government in the first place?

The center-right Kadima Party, which had originally split from Likud over the issue of withdrawal from Gaza, maneuvered itself out of a share in the current government. This left the door open for Labor, but Labor and Likud approaches to peacemaking with the Palestinians are mutually exclusive. Ideologically, the resulting Netanyahu government resembles a doughnut with no filling in the center.

If Labor activists were so exercised by Barak's joining the government, they could have formed their own splinter party way back then. But power corrupts broadly, and there may have been some who naively believed they could influence government decisions on core issues of peace and security. They did betray those who believe the Palestinian Authority is a reliable partner for peace and that the establishment of a viable Palestinian state is an urgent priority for Israel's security and soul, and they have served as window dressing for a government that otherwise would be right/far right.

January 19, 2011

Israel's diplomatic service is out of service, and it shows

Israelis have a tradition of claiming the world doesn't accept a Jewish State, but the current reality is the other way around. And it's starting to produce real consequences. The cause is a strike by Israel's career diplomats, whose compensation is... pathetic. It's not even on a par with employees of the Defense Ministry or the Mossad (whose agents, incidentally, may end up being Israel's only effective official presence overseas). The technical term here is "bubkes". It doesn't help that morale is at an all-time low within the Foreign Ministry, with longtime diplomats returning home to resign -- not just strike -- over money or out of frustration. None of this happened all at once, it's been brewing and bubbling over for months.

How bad is it? This week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev canceled a visit to Israel because the government could not guarantee his arrangements. But President Medvedev did not cancel his visit to the Palestinian Authority, where yesterday he used the occasion to publicly reaffirm Russia's Soviet-era recognition of a Palestinian state. Remember, Russia is not just another country -- it's a recovering superpower, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and one-quarter of the Mideast Quartet that oversees the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In recent weeks, Israel had faced a diplomatic challenge as Argentina, Uruguay, Chile (homes to three of the largest Jewish diaspora communities) and other Latin American nations recognized Palestine without waiting for a final agreement between the parties. By comparison, Russia's reaffirmation of a Soviet policy could be a crisis for Israel.

By the way, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also had to cancel her visit for next week. All these visits and events take months or years to vet and plan.

Israelis spent so many decades deriding the United Nations as "Um Shmum" that most still haven't realized how much progress has been made by their courageous and inventive delegates. The latest step forward was to be a meeting, hosted in Israel, of the UN Economic Commission for Europe: A big... deal. Dozens of countries were coming in to address the issue of alternative energy, a field in which Israel excels. Canceled. Wasted. Humiliated.

There's plenty of public arguing over who needs to give in on the wage issue, the employees or the government. I have met very few Israeli diplomats who were not exemplary, dedicated professionals (and I'm not about to list the exceptions here!). It's a sad turn of events on a human scale, but at a politically delicate moment, when Israel needs to fall back on its reserves of good will and put its best face forward, it finds itself masked and blindfolded, and exposed. Whatever agreement can be worked out, it needed to be yesterday -- literally, yesterday.

January 18, 2011

Filing a 990? Meeting the bare minimum may leave you exposed.

Many nonprofit colleagues were probably away on well-earned vacations during the last week of December, when I blogged a year-end series of posts on best practices to go with the avalanche of last-minute reminders to contribute to everyone (see below, under: December). Here is a new item for consideration during 2011, as your documentation for 2010 gets processed.

What is the difference between a business expense and a job-related perk? How many salaries do executives truly collect?

As nonprofits start contemplating their audit and tax filings for last year (though many will push it back months by filing extensions), they can choose how to reflect executive compensation. [Note: I have no professional license in law or accounting -- a disadvantage? You decide…]

January 17, 2011

Tunisia, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire: Opportunities for Africa

Change is sweeping across Africa this month, from Tunisia in the north to Sudan a little south, to sub-Saharan Cote d'Ivoire.

None of these unfolding and uncertain situations is linked. But their cumulative impact of Arab, Middle East and African politics is significant. The public is becoming more hopeful and confident, while dictators are torn between giving in to popular demands and locking down further. Did the regime in Tunisia fail to open up in time, or was the response to protestors too soft?

Even though these events are influencing the perspectives of the rulers and the governed across the region, every country has its own specific circumstances and considerations.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has carefully quashed the secular opposition, so the only viable alternative to his party is the Muslim Brotherhood. This makes Mubarak the bulwark against extremists, but it also makes it more likely that any post-Mubarak government might be run by radical Muslims. And Mubarak has doubled down by promoting his son to be his successor.

Politically, Sudan is uncharted territory. Southern Sudan's referendum could lead to the first split of an African since... Eritrea? It won't be pretty, but it also involves a genocidal dictator, so there's another blow for "democracy" or self-determination, if the south succeeds.

Cote d'Ivoire was coming out from under civil war and some latter-day French imperialism, then its president decided to ignore the results of an election that would have ended his tenure. Because of the turmoil in Sudan and a swath of failed states in central Africa, the African Union and Western powers are already pressuring President Gbagbo to step down before the road to stability is washed away in a spiral of violence and poverty.

Word is, President Obama plans to focus more on foreign policy and on Africa specifically this year. Just the holding of the Sudan referendum was a tribute to U.S. diplomacy, so the timing couldn't be better. Let's hope the results measure up.

January 14, 2011

Tunisia and democracy - stay tuned...

Events in Tunisia are unfolding by the minute. From President Ben Ali's pledge to retire in a few years, to the army's reported demand that he step down now, and all the demonstrations and violence in between, Tunisia still has an opportunity to move forward.

Twenty years ago, Tunisia seemed like the next best hope for Arab democracy. Morocco has produced slow progress without sacrificing stability, while Algeria has failed. Tunisia was still moving in the right direction, opening up slowly enough to develop strong institutions of civil society without leaving a vacuum to be filled by religious or ideological extremists. Unlike Algeria, it was spared the worst traumas of decolonization and retains a sophisticated global outlook.

Tunisian society and culture are predisposed to the continuation of civilian rule, and to an upgrading of inclusive, participatory government. Tunisia is not a failed state, and it need not become one. Its fate has not yet been sealed. The next several hours and few days will largely determine its future: Will the President either regain control of the situation or leave office? Will the military commit itself to safeguarding a democratic outcome? Will the Arab, Islamic, African and European powers act responsibly and in coordination?

The results in Tunisia will have ramifications for the Maghreb, as well as the rest of the Arab world. In the long run, a more vibrant Tunisia can be a major player in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fighting terrorism and extremism, and transforming the Middle East into a democratic region. The stakes are high, because the possibilities are so great.

January 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

The First Amendment right to free speech precedes the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and should never be threatened by it.

January 12, 2011

Why I use Twitter

I find Twitter useful for several reasons:
1. I often get news even before it’s posted on websites, sometimes a day before an editor processes it for general release, and it all downloads to my handheld so it doesn’t need to be connected as it would if I were surfing the Internet. It saves a lot of time to have it all in one place, without visiting dozens of websites every hour to check what's new.

2. Twitter is the most horizontal medium I know. Foreign ministers and celebrities, friends and random seekers can all pick up on what I tweet, and conversations develop with a built-in audience. It’s interest-driven. And Twitter convos have led me to face-to-face dialogue and collaboration, even overseas adventures.

3. It’s a great way to “drive traffic” or otherwise promote ideas and articles by me or others - including my blog posts.

4. Boiling an idea down to just 140 characters is a good exercise. It doesn’t always need to be the whole idea, just enough to get people to open the link or visit the site.

5. Even without the often ambiguous value of “metrics” and analytic data, it’s easy to know when your idea catches on, and why, and in real time.
I generally post differently to Twitter and Facebook. Twitter is the open arena, where ideas can be judged on their own merits. Facebook is for people I actually know, for whom specific ideas are important but secondary to our personal ties and trust. If I post the same items to both, why should someone follow me on both? 
Many people seem to follow their followers, and vice versa, I have relatively little overlap between my followers and those I follow. It is a good strategy to follow influential people, so you have access to their perspectives and news firsthand, and sometimes they will follow you back (or at least notice when you re-tweet them).

January 11, 2011

Why shouldn't Latin America ignore Jewish concerns?

The Israeli government and Jewish community leaders have spent most of the past two years addressing the Obama administration’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, settlements, and Iran. For better or worse, peace talks have stalled, Washington has given up on settlements as an issue, and the Stuxnet computer worm (for better) has crippled Iran’s nuclear “research” program. While we were focused on this range of challenges, a tide of Latin American nations was moving toward pre-approval for a Palestinian state.

Why do Latin American heads of state care about meeting American Jews?

The best answer is that we are perceived to have friends in Washington. In theory, we can get those friends to help or hinder Latin American aspirations. But what incentive have American Jews provided to U.S. – or Israeli – leaders to pressure or cultivate Latin American ties? The United States will soon send a new ambassador to Venezuela, and the Jewish community had little or nothing to do with those negotiations. And Venezuela is our number-one challenge in Latin America. Every government in the region sees it does not need Jewish support to get what it wants in Washington. And now we face the consequences.

Denouncing Iran has only been useful when it led to actual votes in the United Nations Security Council or tougher enforcement of existing sanctions. The same goes for Palestinian statehood. If we truly believe that premature recognition of a Palestinian state will undermine Israel’s security and remove the incentive for direct negotiations, public campaigns will only get us so far. It’s about votes in the United Nations, not full-page ads in the New York Times.

January 10, 2011

Iran's nuclear threat distracts us from daily dangers

The intelligence dance on Iran continues. Last week, Israel's outgoing Mossad chief pushed back the projected date of Iran’s nuclear debut to 2015. The most recent assessment had been a year or less, but presumably the Stuxnet computer worm and a couple of well-placed motorcycle bombs have set things back a bit. 

But... 2015?
For years now, U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates on Iran's nuclear program have alternated between imminent threat and distant possibility, just over the horizon. Part of this may reflect an honest assessment of technical, strategic and military capabilities and intentions.
Political calculations also factor into such back and forth. If "sanctions fatigue" begins to undermine support for new sanctions or enforcement of existing measures, because the assumption is Iran already has a nuclear capability or it's inevitable, then projections can be changed to show there's still time to act. If the nuclear threshold seems too distant and inconsequential, data can be repackaged to suggest greater urgency and emphasize ongoing progress.

January 9, 2011

Arizona - Will leaders be accountable, or just pray?

The full spectrum of American politics is outraged and disgusted by Saturday’s shooting in Tucson. A federal judge and nine-year-old girl are dead, among others, and a Congresswoman and others are in critical condition, fighting for their lives. I pray for the victims and their families. 
Leaders who are unwilling to denounce hate speech or to adopt policies that curb gun violence cannot gain absolution with condolences and expressions of horror when attacks occur. They may not be directly responsible, but these attacks do not occur in a vacuum. If leaders are held accountable for what happens on their watch, they will be better leaders, and our streets will be safer. 
Anyone who says gun violence is "senseless" but cannot support sensible gun regulation should not be taken seriously. Rejecting the culture of hatred and violence has to happen BEFORE an attack takes place. The past year included campaign “target” lists with gun-style crosshairs marking map locations including Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ district; fundraisers where donors got to fire guns at targets with faces including that of Representative Giffords; incendiary rhetoric and pandering legislation allowing Arizona police to stop anyone who looks like an illegal immigrant; a new expansive Arizona law allowing a concealed weapon WITHOUT A PERMIT. Representative Giffords, a centrist Democrat who supported the recent Health Care Reform Bill, is herself a gun owner and gun-rights supporter.
Our national and local rhetoric consistently demonizes political opponents and glorifies the right to violence. The rate of gun deaths in America in 2005 was over 10,000. Sensible gun regulation is just that -- sensible. Calls for violence against the government and its officials -- not just the violence itself -- should be denounced and prosecuted. We need to break free of a political culture driven by fear and threats.

January 5, 2011

Quote of the Day

When people extol "Judeo-Christian" values, they usually mean Christian values. Welcome to America.

January 3, 2011

Israel can beat Palestinian statehood, but it won't come cheap

Regardless of missteps during the past two years, the Obama administration’s greatest handicap in Arab-Israeli diplomacy is the legacy of eight years of benign neglect from 2001 through 2008. The resulting absence of trust, the surrender of Gaza to Hamas, the abdication of Palestinian legitimacy and initiative to the Arab League, the loss of faith by centrist Israelis -- the catastrophic despair and desperation among Palestinians on the ground -- have put us in a situation where nothing good might happen for another ten years. 
One negative development that could come to pass in 2011, however, is a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, which would be the first since the Palestinians have controlled territory by agreement with the State of Israel. Several Latin American nations have already ‘pre-recognized’ this statehood, and the U.S. Government’s effort to keep alive some dialogue in the region will be compromised if it has to veto a UN Security Council decision on recognizing Palestinian statehood -- which it will almost certainly have to do. 
As my Algonquin cohort Micah Halpern has pointed out, the Palestinians and the Arab League effectively assumed this strategy many months ago: Return to negotiations for a limited period, biding the time for negotiations to fail, at which point they would have enough political capital to sway European and Latin American governments. We may have reached this point.

Quote of the Day

If it sounds too good to be true, then guess what...