September 23, 2011

Bahrain gets blasted for the wrong offense

I have previously expressed my concerns, admittedly more privately than publicly, about Bahrain's crackdown on anti-government protesters. I think it's a bad way to promote democracy, even in a region with no functioning democracies (Iraq is notable, but hardly functioning). While many of the protesters may be motivated by legitimate grievances, Iran definitely has an interest (and at least some influence) in having these protests get out of control and destabilizing Bahrain, just a narrow Gulf away from its shores.

The latest complaint, from a prominent Shiite cleric in the Sunni-dominated Kingdom, is that Bahrain is a "fake democracy". As far as I know, Bahrain is a monarchy and does not claim to be a democracy per se, so it is neither fake nor a democracy. More than that, its track record on freedom of religion and freedom of expression has been better than most Gulf nations, though there remains much to be done.

There is currently no Shiite example of democracy of any kind, anywhere in the world. Being a Shiite should not be a crime, and I hope my more moderate friends (including my gracious hosts) among Bahrain's ruling class will yet find a way to properly balance the complicated mix of security, political and social forces at play in and around the Kingdom.  I do not mean this as a critique of Shiite political philosophy, but the non sequitur of a Shiite religious leader accusing any Gulf state of being a "fake democracy" seemed too appealing to leave alone.

Claiming credit for Obama's Israel "turnaround"

One of the more ridiculous assertions to come out of the impressive win by newly elected Republican Congressman Bob Turner is that Turner's victory influenced the pro-Israel speech President Obama delivered this week at the United Nations.

As I've blogged before, and should be widely known, President Obama has consistently been very pro-Israel in his actual policies and in every speech he's delivered before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has felt the need to complain about President Obama -- both publicly and indirectly, whether with or without justification -- does not mean Obama hasn't been following the pro-Israel checklist. And even his pro-Likud checklist is more than half-filled, though that has not stopped U.S. Republicans from accusing the Democratic President of "throwing Israel under the bus."

It is true, Democrat and former New York Mayor Ed Koch threw down the gauntlet, declaring the Ninth District Congressional race to be a referendum on the President's Israel policies. It's also true that some percentage of Orthodox Jewish voters turned out for Turner on that specific issue. But the margin of victory was wide enough that Israel was not the single decisive factor, and there is ZERO evidence that President Obama changed his UN message in any way -- Turner victory or no Turner victory.

And besides, the Democrats have never been shown to be that strategic.

September 21, 2011

Thank you, President Obama...?

If Jewish Democrats were smart, they would circulate a petition across cyber-space, gathering signatures to thank President Obama -- loud and clear -- for his forceful pro-Israel advocacy this week at the United Nations. They might also take out "Thank you, President Obama" ads in Jewish community papers -- at least in time for next week's big New Year's editions. And they would include positive quotes from Prime Minister Netanyahu about Obama's promise to veto membership for a new Palestinian state, as well as Netanyahu's latest statement that Obama deserves a "badge of honor". But only if.

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations are busy collecting signatures addressed to the United Nations itself, which is good for raising awareness in the community even though it's unlikely to have any impact on the eventual votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly. The Republican-oriented Emergency Committee for Israel took out ads this week condemning the Palestinians and the President in the same breath.

The Jewish Democrats could try to regain (or better, gain) the initiative on Obama and Israel by calling on their Republican counterparts to stand with President Obama at this watershed moment for the Jewish state, etc. But instead, despite apparently vigorous conversations on how to improve their messaging to American Jewish voters, they seem to be reacting to the Republican broadsides and highlighting exemplary but very discrete actions, such as the President's recent efforts on behalf of Israeli personnel trapped inside the Cairo embassy.

I look forward.

Look who's keeping Obama from helping Israel

If a tree falls in a forest and the Prime Minister of Israel doesn't complain, is it still anti-Israel?

It's hard not to be struck by the spectacle of American and Israeli politicians undermining Obama -- even as he's trying to avert UN recognition of the Palestinian state -- on the grounds that he's undermining Israel. The main evidence of the President's animus towards Israel seems to be statements from the Prime Minister and his circle, and from mostly partisan Republicans seeking electoral advantage. On substance, the President has mostly been doing Israel's bidding (I blogged some examples last year).

Even as President Obama is lobbying European governments and the Palestinian leadership against a unilateral declaration of an independent state, there are Republicans -- Jews and gentiles -- amplifying their critique of the President's Middle East policies, especially with respect to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

To my knowledge, neither President Obama nor his associates have ever publicly complained about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's commitment to the peace process, though he has called on him to take steps that would help resume direct talks enhance Israel's credibility among the same European governments Obama is now lobbying on Israel's behalf.

Those from either country who repeatedly decry Obama's "hostility" toward Netanyahu are the most to blame for any international perception that America does not stand squarely behind Israel. For example, what if Netanyahu had swallowed his ego last spring and welcomed Obama's strong call for direct negotiations based on the pre-1967 lines, with agreed land swaps, instead of blasting the President's speech?

Love him or hate him, the President of the United States is... the President of the United States. Can one ask for a better lobbyist before the nations of the world, under any circumstances? Does it help to have hardliners calling on him to do what he's already doing, and distracting the media?

If Netanyahu ever gets his "wish" in a substantive way, he may regret having pushed those buttons so often. But at least, he'll probably still be Prime Minister.

September 19, 2011

The Israeli UN speech that can't

At the United Nations, Israel seems destined to continue squandering its starring role on the global stage, only to play to the hometown audience. Last time around, it was Holocaust heartstrings, and this week it will be Palestinian politics. And beyond squandering, it's actually undermining Israel's diplomatic and political interests. 


Two years ago, when Prime Minister Netanyahu last represented Israel at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, he used his speech to defend the historical record of the Holocaust in the face of denials by the Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Ironically, Ahmadinejad omitted that very libel from his own UNGA remarks, so the only one that week to highlight doubts about the Holocaust was the Prime Minister of Israel. 

This whole exercise came four years AFTER the UN had finally begun recognizing and institutionalizing the scale, lessons and implications of the Holocaust, and the UNGA had already adopted a resolution condemning denial of the Holocaust -- with Iran implicitly the target. And in a perverse twist, just weeks earlier, Netanyahu's political allies in Israel and the United States had blasted President Obama for lecturing the Muslim world about the intimate connection between the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish State, as though Obama were reducing Israel to just a Holocaust metaphor. Then the same critics turned around and praised Netanyahu for essentially doing the same thing.

To a world that had recently committed itself to the inadmissibility of Holocaust denial, Netanyahu validated the naysayers by literally waving documentary evidence in their faces. Israelis loved it, but it was neither relevant nor timely. 


This week, Netanyahu returns in person, after letting his Foreign Minister address the UNGA last year on the merits of population transfer. What will the Prime Minister stress? The injustice of recognizing a new Palestinian state at this time.

Leaving aside whether it is unjust and/or unwise for the Palestinians, Israel is itself a sovereign country, with much more to offer the world than a stand against Palestinian self-determination. So is this really what the Prime Minister wants to put front and center as Israel's annual message to the assembled world leaders? Apparently so.

September 16, 2011

GOP gains Jewish votes, at whose cost?

Since before Barack Obama was elected, individual Jewish community leaders and organizations have warned Jewish voters that the President wanted to "throw Israel under the bus." To some extent, this strategy has worked. The number of Jews who think their fellow Jews are somehow bad Jews if they support Obama's re-election has probably increased, and perhaps some of those Jewish Democrats even believe they themselves are bad Jews for it.

In the end, the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters will continue thinking for themselves, which happens to be the worst possible indictment of the organized Jewish community -- i.e., irrelevance. For the average Jewish voter, such slogans have no meaning or impact whatsoever. More than hurting Obama or helping Israel, this GOP strategy is also helping to alienate more Jews from their community and from the State of Israel.

September 12, 2011

Israel faces bigger threats than "Palestine"

I often hear observers lament that one party or other in a dispute is getting all worked up over a "symbol". The sad fact is, many wars have been fought over symbols, because symbols are usually important on both sides of a conflict.

Losing the United Nations vote on recognizing a Palestinian "UDI" (unilateral declaration of independence) is not Israel's biggest challenge right now.

Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iran...

Israel seems to have fewer friends and fewer stable neighbors -- and more dangerous neighbors -- than it did a year ago.

September 11, 2011

My 9/11

A beautiful Tuesday morning, so I took my time walking to the office, in the old B'nai B'rith Building on Rhode Island Avenue, barely a ten-minute walk from the White House. As I approached the entrance, a mid-level colleague was rushing out of the building, talking like the world was ending. Planes had hit the World Trade Center, and other wild tales, and she was fleeing back to the Maryland suburbs.

I went upstairs to my office, got online and turned on the TV. Wow. When I saw that TWO planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, I instinctively listened for the sound of fighter jets over Washington, DC, since clearly the nation's capital would be a target. But nothing outside.

I called a few of our partners in Russia and Ukraine, to make sure those Jewish communities were not affected, and to let them know we were still available to them.

After some minutes, the wife of another colleague called looking for him, and she wanted to know why I was still even in the building. She said Jewish buildings were obvious targets. I replied, "I wouldn't worry. The Jewish buildings are the soft targets. They got the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon, they may be after the Capitol and the State Department for all I know. And NOW you think they're going to hit the B'nai B'rith Building..?"

September 10, 2011

Egypt takes a break

Though not entirely surprising, accounts of the operation to rescue Israeli personnel from Israel's Embassy in Cairo are both gripping and sobering. Even if Egypt-Israel relations survive the transition from Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship, it will be a rough road.

Where does this hatred of Israel and Jews originate? Certainly, many Arabs and Muslims have a visceralresentment of the Jewish State along with garden-variety anti-Semitism. But let's not forget that it was Hosni Mubarak's propaganda machine that tolerated or forced the newspapers and TV channels to propagate the most vicious anti-Semitic images and distortions.

While he was promoting Egypt's role as the Arab gateway to Washington and peace with Israel, Mubarak was staving off domestic resistance to his military dictatorship by feeding red meat to his dear subjects. This included repressing all opposition parties except the Muslim Brotherhood, lest Egyptians ever think there was an acceptable alternative to Hosni Mubarak and his cohorts. And it included fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.

Mubarak was one of the military leaders under Anwar Sadat, and not personally implicated in the audacious peace initiative that restored Sinai to Egyptian control. Whoever ends up running Egypt will be in a similar position -- legally and economically bound to honor the terms of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty -- and with much less connection to the assassinated Sadat and his perceived perfidy.

Since Mubarak was both an ally of Washington and a grudging collaborator with Jerusalem, attacking the Israeli Embassy is a perfect way to exact symbolic retribution. Whoever gets elected President of Egypt will be held in check by the same corporate military staff that backed Mubarak all those years, but will find it easier to maintain popular support by appealing to anti-Semitism and finding ways to show defiance to Israel. On the hopeful side, Egypt-Israel relations have survived that precarious balance before. But this time, it may take more than hope.

September 6, 2011

Mission Accomplished... does Libya count?

I wasn't planning to shout from the rooftops over the success of President Obama's smart-power strategy in Libya, though I had blogged early this year that Libya was an opportunity for him. Not a confounding challenge, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or Egypt or Syria, but nevertheless an opportunity to turn a fresh page, at least back to the limited-engagement days of Clinton and Bush (remember 41?). This may not have been a slam dunk, but let's at least give the President credit for a good rebound shot.

Six months ago, back when I first posted on this, lots of Republicans seemed to be goading the President into invading Libya. The disappointment was palpable when he threw in with our NATO allies and let them do most of the work -- with no ground invasion, and with limited firepower after the first days of giving the rebels a head start. And in the end, it's been estimated that the entire Libya engagement cost Washington less than $1 billion -- no casualties, no PTSD -- and far less than the cost of one day in Iraq after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" stunt.

Later, the Republicans' spent blood lust turned into anger that the imperial imperialist (Obama) needed to invoke the War Powers Act, even though President Bush (43) had invaded Iraq with only a vague contingency resolution from Congress, and in Libya no U.S. ground forces were committed. A few of my Republican friends have suddenly informed me they never even liked Bush's whole "democracy-building" agenda. Oh.

September 4, 2011

EU and Palestine? It's complicated.

Postscript to my previous post: The European Union nations are considering a compromise United Nations General Assembly resolution that will recognize Israel and Palestine alongside each other and also push for resumption of bilateral negotiations over borders and other remaining issues. [Thanks to Laura Rozen for breaking and analyzing the details of this late development.]

Such a compromise would certainly help restore European unity on this and other issues. Several EU member states have been planning to support or abstain on the maximalist version of a resolution, which will recognize Palestine as a full state without such substantive conditions as calling for further negotiations. It would be great for the EU to demonstrate consensus on a thorny international issue -- and at the UN, no less. All the better if they can simultaneously embrace Palestinian statehood and get credit for promoting Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The EU is also no stranger to compromises that help to avert a battle between competing principles in the UN. The Palestinians must know very well that Europe loves a compromise, and that the ever-elusive EU consensus is at a historic low right now. If the Palestinians reject the compromise and hold out for the straight-up UN resolution recognizing statehood -- the version that Israel and the United States and France and Germany and Italy are all set against -- won't the rest of the world happily pick it up again and leave the EU compromise in the dust? If so, the EU consensus will break down as well, as several EU states would probably jump aboard rather than be seen as opposing the vehicle for Palestinian self-determination.

September 2, 2011

Israel may finally lose the EU on Palestinian statehood

The Foreign Ministers of the European Union are meeting one more time to try and reach consensus on the Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition as an independent, sovereign state. This gives President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu one last chance to try working together before the United States is forced to cast its veto in the UN Security Council, probably in early October. 

If the UN General Assembly recognizes a sovereign state, that's at once a major breakthrough and headache for the Palestinians and certainly no picnic for the Israelis. It will effectively accord the Palestinians the same sovereign status as the State of Israel. Membership in the UN depends on a vote in the Security Council, however, where the United States is one of five permanent members (P-5) entitled to veto the whole exercise. But the GA resolution will carry massive moral power, open the floodgates for all sorts of substantive and symbolic advantages. The U.S. veto would withhold the ultimate prize, and for that Washington will be scorned. 

The biggest door the Palestinians hope to open with the "UDI" (unilateral declaration of independence) is Europe. Although sympathy for the Palestinians runs high in Europe, there are limitations: No formal Palestinian embassies, no major trade agreements, many of the business and development initiatives are subject to EU consensus and the Mideast Quartet comprised of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia. If the Europeans register an exception by either not voting or voting against the anticipated UN resolution on Palestine, they won't be as free afterward to accept all the consequences of that statehood.