December 28, 2012

"You shall tell your son"

The other night, I was driving my son past our local "correctional facility", and he peppered me with various matter-of-fact questions, ending with whether I'd ever been inside a jail.

The easy part was telling him I had once been inside a jail in Washington, DC, a long time ago. The harder part was explaining to a seven-year-old who takes globalization and his own Jewish identity for granted, that just 25 years ago the world was a very different place. My son has seen me off to Moscow on routine business travel, and here I was telling him that Jewish children in Russia were once forbidden from keeping the Sabbath and studying Torah or learning Hebrew -- not in some ancient Greco-Syrian occupation thousands of years ag
o a la Hanukkah, or in Pharaoh's Egypt, but in his own father's lifetime.

I told my son how I stood with others opposite the Soviet ("Russian") Embassy while the Russian leader was visiting Washington, and spoke out on behalf of our fellow Jews who were denied even the right to emigrate. I felt we had to do whatever we could. "Aba, what's an Embassy?" Insert primer on normative diplomacy...

It was illegal to demonstrate so close to a foreign embassy, so we knew we would be arrested. They took us away in a school bus, though it wasn't painted yellow. "How long did you stay in jail?" We were held for the whole afternoon until we were brought into court and the judge released us, but the police treated us very well.

"Did you stay with the other people in the jail?" We had our own cell, with bars, and we could see and hear the other prisoners. We had the opportunity to do something so people would know -- and the Russian "President" would see -- that we cared about the Jews in Russia. Unlike most of those other prisoners, and unlike the Jews in Russia, I was free to go home that same night.

After some moments of silence from the back seat, I asked my son how this makes him feel: "Amazed."

December 26, 2012

Negotiating with Hamas, but for the wrong reason?

Whether to advance a peace agreement leading to a Palestinian state or to consolidate the status quo, an Israeli government will probably be talking to Hamas before too long.

Twenty years ago, Israeli law prohibited any Israeli citizen from contact with the Palestine Liberation. As Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir put it, talking to the PLO would lead to the unacceptable establishment of a Palestinian state. And center-left politicians, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres agreed. So when Rabin became the PM and Peres his Foreign Minister, they pursued indirect contacts with the PLO precisely because they had realized that a separate Palestinian state was indispensable to Israel's long-term stability.

Today, the idea of "a PLO state bordering Israel" sounds pretty bad, but it remains the official preference of the Government of Israel... even if the actions of Israel's current leadership seem to be making that outcome progressively less likely. When President Ronald Reagan authorized the U.S. Government to talk directly with the PLO 24 years ago, the PLO was still on the State Department's list of Foreign Terror Organizations -- as is Hamas today.

But it was still the Cold War, PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met the specific conditions the United States had pledged to Israel, and Vice-President George H.W. Bush had already won the election to succeed the departing Reagan. There was little Israel or American Jewish organizations could do beyond calling for strict controls. Within five years, partly thanks to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and serious strong-arming by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Bush administration helped set the stage for the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Today, the memory of Hamas terror is constantly refreshed by new attacks on Israeli civilians, and Hamas leaders speak regularly of destroying Israel. The PLO once acted the same way, and that bitter legacy will never be erased. And yet, the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO, and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is generally seen as the best chance for a moderate Palestinian leader willing to make a final deal with Israel.

December 18, 2012

Some Jews don't like Chuck Hagel... so?

President Obama has just won re-election. As some Republican Senators have acknowledged, "elections have consequences." One consequence of this election was that, despite the best efforts of Jewish Republicans in and out of community leadership roles, the President won a healthy margin of the Electoral College -- so the pro-Netanyahu wing of the pro-Israel (Jewish) community has political credibility issues. Plus the President showed unflinching solidarity (including Iron Dome) with Israel during last month's Gaza conflict with Hamas.

I do not know if Chuck Hagel would be the best choice for Secretary of Defense, but barring any major disclosures or failings, that choice is the President's to make. A Vietnam veteran and former Republican Senator, Hagel is widely respected in military and policy circles, and his professional qualifications seem fine. The Senate Republicans already forced out the President's putative nominee for Secretary of State, Susan Rice, and stopping one of their own former colleagues now would be  bit much. This is not going to be an easy fight, especially if it's on behalf of an ally that's already getting too much play in Washington politics.

A winning strategy for Jewish leaders is ideally to be part of the solution, and not to pick fights with Presidents unless Israel's survival is directly threatened. The best case against Hagel seems to be that he's not a bleeding-heart Zionist; he supports U.S. engagement on Mideast peace; he was one of the few Senators who routinely avoided signing onto pro forma "Dear Colleague" letters in support of Israeli interests; and, the same people who slam President Obama's positions on Israel also slam Hagel.

Interestingly, the Jewish establishment leaped to support Susan Rice, however briefly, because she has been so stalwart in support of Israel as the President's Ambassador to the United Nations. Many were concerned when she was first nominated four years ago, because her worldview seemed closer to all those leftists calling on Israel to get with the 21st century, drop all the nationalism sentiment, and cut a quick deal with the Palestinians. So maybe her eyes were opened, or maybe she was serving President Obama and advancing HIS agenda. I would expect a Secretary Hagel to do no less.

Defense cooperation with Israel is better than ever. Ever. We're still taking casualties in Afghanistan and fighting a global commando war against Al Qaeda. I voted for Barack Obama last month, and so did most Americans -- and two-thirds of Jews -- who went to the polls. Standing in the way of his nominee because he's not Joe Lieberman is just a bad idea, and one my Jewish Republican friends are eagerly pushing.

December 17, 2012

Post-Sandy Hook, GOP can lead, follow, or disappear

A couple of years back, I blogged about the GOP's craven transformation of once non-partisan issues into partisan wedge issues. Gun control was number-one, followed by the environment, immigration, civil rights, and campaign finance reform. Recently, the more Congressional Republicans push their partisan buttons on basic common-sense issues, the more they lose at the voting booth and in demographic projections of party allegiance.

This is good news, not because Democrats are more deserving than Republicans, but because in the end America needs practical solutions. The unspeakable tragedy that occurred last Friday may finally pull us -- and even the Republican Party -- back from the brink of the gun lobby's stranglehold on even basic measures like uniform background checks and a general ban on assault weapons. If the GOP maintains its blanket opposition to any further gun restrictions, that will further exacerbate its own failure to relate to the majority of Americans, even many of its own supporters.

If, with President Obama's leadership on the issue, our nation can succeed on gun control, we might have enough momentum to apply people power against well-organized big money in the other areas as well. It is too late to avert widespread environmental catastrophe during the 21st century, but it is never too late to start instituting serious emission controls and other regulations and incentives to minimize the kind devastation and dislocation that scientific consensus has been predicting for years.

Either the GOP joins up, or it continues its long-term decline as a political force -- analogous to the resulting inevitability of climate change. But we must succeed in addressing these issues regardless. And either way, our children and our grandchildren will be a little less disadvantaged. In the meantime, I'm taking my kids to visit glaciers before it really is too late.

December 14, 2012

Israeli Foreign Minister's audacity of dope

[Just after posting this, I heard that Minister Lieberman is resigning in the face of a criminal indictment... but the Czechoslovakia argument remains a common refrain among right-wing Israelis. And Lieberman will probably get re-elected in the January 22 elections and remain a force in the Knesset.]

Regarding concessions to the Palestinians, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week that European governments must know that Israel "will not be a second Czechoslovakia." Really??

The Foreign Minister's umbrage aside, his choice of analogy was truly baffling. Czechoslovakia, after all, was a weak, artificial proto-state, formed out of the negative space after World War I obliterated the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1939, Adolf Hitler forcibly ANNEXED the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, claiming it as a German heartland. At the now-infamous Munich conference, the European powers effective handed the Sudetenland over to Adolf Hitler, the regional juggernaut, in a failed bid to placate Germany's lust for conquest. Over the months that followed, it became evident that the appeasement of Munich was the international community's gateway to the Holocaust.

Since 1967, Israel has used similar terminology and actions by "annexing" East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Right-wing Israeli politicians have perennially called for "annexing" all or part of the West Bank, pointing to the large Jewish settler population as a justification. And if there is a regional hegemon today, based on military and economic might, it is Israel and not the Palestinians.

So... If we're applying the Munich-Czechoslovakia model to Israel and the West Bank, who would be Czechoslovakia and who would be Hitler? The perverse answer to such a question is why it's so shocking that any Israeli politician would apply the Czechoslovakia model. Israel is NOT the Third Reich, so why use an example where the aggressor was a powerful country annexing lands where its people are settled, at the expense of the weaker rump state?

There are many valid arguments for why Europeans should be more supportive of Israel and harder on the Palestinians, especially the terrorist elements. But "Czechoslovakia" is nothing but a shrill play of the Holocaust card, hoping that no one will notice it is utter nonsense. So far, especially with Israeli elections a few weeks down the road, that bet is paying off.

December 13, 2012

Iran's sense of vulnerability casts a wide net

The Gulf expects more from the United States, and less from Iran. Surprised?

On the military side, admirals and generals want to know our plans and protocols for managing the threat from Iran, on tactical as well as strategic levels. Politically, diplomats and bloggers alike blame us for letting Mubarak fall in favor of the new Islamist Pharaoh, Mohamed Morsi. On Syria, opinion is divided on whether the United States ought to directly intervene militarily or simply provide advanced weapons to the rebels. But then maybe, judging from the current blowback on Morsi and his ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, we should be stepping in to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad... Stability vs. democracy, or secular vs. religious autocracy.

Reflecting the outdated relevance of Wikileaks, Gulf regimes are no longer itching for a U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Instead, they are acutely aware that if Iran gets lucky with just one anti-ship mine, all oil shipments will come to a standstill. The closer Iran gets to achieving "breakout" capacity, or to crossing one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ever-shifting "red lines", the more regional leaders understand that neither diplomatic nor military options promise an easy resolution. And once again, regardless of the nuclear file, Iran's ongoing opportunism is evident in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and potentially Bahrain. The regime in Tehran is as happy to take advantage of popular Arab unrest as it was to seize full control of Abu Musa from the United Arab Emirates 20 years ago (or to regain its former sovereignty, according to the Iranians).

For all their defiance and bluster, Iranians remain concerned about their own rights to security and national self-defense: The entire punitive premise of international nuclear negotiators and the sanctions backing them up leaves Iranians feeling humiliated and cornered. This is not merely posturing -- it's a genuine feeling.

I do not discount Iran's violation of international treaties and conventions on the transparency and verifiability of its nuclear program, nor its propensity to support terrorism and undermine diplomatic solutions, especially where the Israelis and Palestinians are concerned. Sure, Iran is responsible for its current dilemma. But so long as Iran feels deep down that its very sovereignty and survival are being threatened, it is unlikely to willingly give up what has become its nuclear insurance policy.

While the West cannot afford to back down, it is increasingly likely that Iran will nevertheless succeed in attaining nuclear weapons capacity within the next five years. Leveraging the existing and future sanctions and other measures, it may be possible to fashion a process and terms of reference that acknowledge and allay Iranian fears and also establish a framework for taking the centrifuges off line.

An Iran that WANTS to own nuclear weapons can potentially be deterred. An Iran that feels it NEEDS to own nuclear weapons will be truly dangerous and unpredictable. If our efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran are able to address both points, we just might succeed in the short term and also open the door to a long-term process of normalization.

December 8, 2012

"Ilaynaa?" This is us you're talking to...

This year's Manama Dialogue, back after skipping last year amid Bahrain's internal strife, has produced some notable public statements and many private conversations. There's a tremendous degree of up-to-the-tweet knowledge and keen interest about what's going on in Washington, not to mention around the Middle East. The U.S. and other delegations have been delivering alternate doses of reality and humility to the mostly Arab participants -- government and military officials, as well as media and policy experts. [I am here again as a grateful guest of Bahrain's Foreign Ministry.]

So far, the most audacious statements have come from Qatar's foreign minister, who suggested to the audience that Syria's rebel forces could use MANPADS (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles) to secure a no-fly zone. He dismissed concerns that such weapons finding their way out of the country and into the hands of terrorists, as happened in Libya: Syria is different, because its neighbors are all secure and stable!! Who knew...

The cheekiest question from the floor was addressed to the U.S. delegation by a drôle Brit (who else?): "How long are the American people prepared to continue to bankroll the security of Chinese oil supplies?" Ouch.

Senator John McCain delivered a strong case for greater U.S. leadership and involvement in the region, including military intervention in Syria and more engagement and democracy-building on the ground in Libya. As a reflection of Washington's complicated politics, the Senator has recently devoted much of his time to assailing the Obama administration for the attack that killed four Americans in Libya, who were there precisely as part of the President's commitment to engage Libyans and help them build a democratic society.

Generally, there was little emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian issue this time, whereas two years ago Jordan's King Abdullah made that the focus of his speech here. The curtain-raiser was a panel on Syria, which included a leader of the Syrian opposition, and only at the very end, China's Middle East envoy threw in -- non sequitur -- that the Palestinian issue remains the biggest problem in the Middle East. No doubt, our Syrian friend got home safely by now...

Beyond Syria, Egypt remains a major item on the Manama agenda. It looks like some of the Egyptian delegation failed to make the trip after all, including the General who heads "Crisis Management" for the Egyptian Armed Forces. The second day's sessions concluded before the news of Egyptian President Morsi's scaling back much of his decree for unchecked power, which may mean the restrained U.S. response to that crisis actually worked -- let's see what the buzz is on Sunday...

There is ambient frustration with the U.S. Government over the sense that Washington has withdrawn from the Middle East, including from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, exhausted as we are from waging two major wars in this region and now peering over The Fiscal Cliff. 

While conspicuously omitting America from the list of nations that were helpful to Bahrain through its recent turmoil, Crown Prince Salman's keynote did give a little pitch (or dig) for us to get "the state of Israel" back into negotiations. In other words, while according Israel all due legitimacy, His Royal Highness asks if Washington can maybe do one little bit of heavy lifting once and for all. With flag officers in the room, of course, it's also hard to forget that Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the waters of the Gulf and Straits of Hormuz among other strategically vital sectors. Let's just say, both parties benefit from the arrangement. And as it happened, Senator McCain was late arriving from Kuwait, so he was not in the room for this royal treatment.

More significantly, the Crown Prince emphasized and acknowledged the trauma his country has endured since our 2010 session, with many mistakes by the authorities that need to be addressed and corrected going forward. In this, his speech was not so much PROMISING a "new Middle East" as DELIVERING it in substance. Time will tell as to implementation and fulfillment, but it was no ordinary speech. And he predicted more substantive announcements in the coming days.

Picking up on the Crown Prince's appeal, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called on the United States to re-engage Israel and the Palestinians before time really runs out. He framed his entire speech within a spirit of humility, noting he is "not a citizen of the Middle East" and therefore not prepared to lecture Middle Easterners about their own region. Obviously, his most immediate concern was the situation in Syria, and there was much deliberation throughout the sessions about the efficacy of internal resistance and outside diplomacy, and heated calls for military intervention, with or without waiting for the Assad regime to deploy chemical weapons (and with or without Russia's imprimatur). Military and security experts were also confident they can secure Syria's weapons stockpiles once Assad is gone. If...

Hague and the Americans -- and the Saudis -- paid special attention to Iran's role in the region, as well as its nuclear program. As we take on the progress and challenges of a "new" Middle East, it's also sobering that the region's two biggest flash points are Egypt and Syria. A half-century ago, these two key Arab nations were briefly united into one country by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who heralded a new kind of pan-Arab Middle East. Nasser's promise largely failed, and today we face new and distinct changes, risks and potential in both countries, with consequences for the entire Middle East and beyond.

December 7, 2012

Arab Spring overplayed & underestimated

This week, as I made my way to the region, I've been following the dramatic downturn of democratic governance in Egypt. A few initial thoughts before I hear more informed  perspectives:


While President Morsi's Mubarak-esque combination of autocratic proclivities and astounding detachment from reality are deeply alarming, the Egyptian people are again rising up in protest. So, the biggest beneficiary and hallmark of the "Arab Spring" is proving to be More Of the Same, but the democratic spirit of the movement -- the citizens themselves -- is unabated. They still expect functional, legitimate democracy, whether from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood or someone else. And anyway, few reputable analysts were banking on Morsi's prospects as a democratic visionary. But elections do have consequences, especially when they're held too early.


We need to excise Morsi as the face of the Arab Spring, lest his blowout come to symbolize the whole Arab Spring. If Egypt's experiment fails, this by itself does not prove the Arab Spring was a ruse or a mirage -- as some of my fellow American observers have been blogging in recent days. Owing to its size, intellectual history and strategic importance, Egypt easily took first place as the symbol of the Arab Spring. Egypt may still prove to be the big test of this sweeping movement, yet other countries are also processing their own versions. 

Tunisia, where the democratic tide started last year, is showing the kind of measured progress that Western news anchors take for granted, and thus makes for few headlines. Despite continued uncertainty, including the recent Benghazi attack that killed four Americans including the U.S. Ambassador, Libyans remain optimistic and supportive of their new democratic-trending government. 

In Bahrain, last year's protests and the ensuing crackdown were largely limited in time and scope. The grievances remain and will need to be addressed one way or another, but this is not the garden-variety Arab Spring, especially since Bahrain is sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia -- two of the least democratic regimes in the region. 

Syria's Assad regime is holding fast, for now, amid popular unrest and armed rebellion. Much will depend on Bashar Assad's individual mindset: He could hold out until the end, leave town just after his kids open their Christmas presents, or start using chemical weapons against his own citizens. That third option could provide a casus belli for U.S.-NATO intervention, which will horribly escalate the violence but may also end the dictatorship and keep Iran out of the post-Assad politics.


The role of non-Arab states within the Middle East will also help determine the direction of political change in the region. Iran's support for Assad and its opportunistic use of Morsi's election in Egypt have been a negative influence on the Arab Spring, and should inspire greater resolve by reformers rather than a Western retreat. Turkey, once the moderate Muslim referee, needs to regain its composure and recapture its influence with Egypt and Syria in particular. Its recent military counter-attacks on Syria, its second fiddle at Morsi's Gaza cease-fire negotiations and the angry posturing against Israel are keeping the Islamist government from realizing its potential as mediator and guarantor among its neighbors.

The Arab Spring is definitely incomplete, even dangerous in spots. But this is the Middle East, after all. And the story remains unfinished and -- in too many cases -- untold. Instead of dismissing the significance or permanence of the democratic moment, Westerners should be joining with Arabs and others to see where and why the Arab Spring is faltering, and what we can do together to facilitate real, measurable and even lasting results.

December 3, 2012

The four-state solution and other realities

The greatest irony of the past week has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that the United Nations vote to upgrade Palestine's observer status was a unilateral action that undermines negotiations for a two-state solution. Netanyahu's response to such unilateralism was to announce his own unilateral move that specifically undermines a two-state solution: authorizing settlement construction to connect Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, which would effectively split the West Bank in half. The four-state solution would be Israel, Gaza, West Bank north, and West Bank south. Now who's undermining whom?

The main takeaway from this should be that the current Israeli government is in no way committed to a two-state solution, or to meaningful negotiations. This should come as no surprise to anyone, including most Israelis of any bandwidth. Every time Netanyahu calls for a return to negotiations, he or his underlings manage to take some unilateral action of their own, usually relating to growing Israel's West Bank settlements or neighborhoods within the ever-expanding definition of "Jerusalem".

Regardless of one's preferred path or destination, several myths deserve to be discontinued:


Both Palestinians and Israelis are engaged in unilateral actions. The main differences are that Palestinian unilateralism tends to manifest periodically at the diplomatic level. Israeli unilateralism is evident on the ground and continues every day, via security checkpoints, ongoing construction projects, and restrictions on Palestinian economic activity. Justified or not, these are all unilateral actions, and not the subject of bilateral negotiations or agreement. And like it or not, going to the UN may interfere with the very hypothetical potential for direct negotiations, but it's hard to call anything garnering the support of 138 governments entirely "unilateral". (For better or worse, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was a completely unilateral decision.)


There's nothing wrong with having preconditions for negotiations, as long as we are all open about their existence. Both sides have preconditions, and it's a stretch to suggest otherwise. Israel's calls for Abbas to return to the table without preconditions ring hollow when -- in the same breath -- we are told he must first recognize Israel as a "Jewish state". No other entity in the world has had to make such a declaration as a condition for negotiations, full diplomatic relations or even military alliance with Israel, and until the past year this was never even stated vis-a-vis the Palestinians. (Just weeks ago, on Israeli television, Abbas himself ruled out a Palestinian return to pre-1967 Israel.) But it is definitely a precondition, no less than the Palestinian insistence that Israel forswear further settlement growth while negotiations are underway. When Hamas and Fatah seemed close to reconciling their differences last year, Israel revived one of its old preconditions, that any such union must reaffirm the core principles, including renouncing terror and accepting Israel's right to exist (as a Jewish state or not). 


Netanyahu's response to what he termed the undermining of the two-state solution was to... undermine the two state solution. Expanding or initiating new settlements anywhere but the area known as "E1" area might be seen as a counter-productive but proportional response to the upgrading of Palestinian status at the UN. But by announcing construction that merges the Edumim settlements bloc with Jerusalem -- while cutting off the provisional Palestinian capital of Ramallah and the northern West Bank (Biblical Samaria) from the south (Biblical Judea) -- Netanyahu is expressly writing off any interest in the increasingly anachronistic "two-state solution" involving Israel and a viable Palestinian state.


Hamas terrorism, including the massive missile barrage against Israel's civilian population, must be denounced and punished. But intentionally or not, one effect of Israeli retaliation is to bolster Hamas among Palestinians, at the expense of Abbas. Israel's reaction to the UN vote is a case in point. One of the more valid arguments against the Palestinian status upgrade was the absence of Palestinian consensus over who is the rightful representative -- can Abbas truly claim to represent all Palestinians when he comes to the UN, or when/if he sits down with Netanyahu at the negotiating table? That said, if Israel's right-wing coalition government had any interest in a negotiated agreement, wouldn't it try to find ways of making it easier for Abbas to negotiate, instead of making it harder at every turn? Hamas is a useful excuse, and one that keeps benefiting from each setback.

Personally, I find it much easier, and more effective, to explain Israeli actions as simply a popular decision by a right-wing government, representing a right-shifted population that has lost hope in the prospect of peace; since long before last week, the average Israeli would literally laugh at the idea that the Oslo Accords were anything but a failure, so why pretend they still care about preserving or fulfilling Oslo? Arguing that Netanyahu actually wants to negotiate a realistic two-state solution, without preconditions; that Israel eschews unilateral actions; that Israel has no partner for negotiations -- this should be insulting to most people who have an understanding of the issue. Those making such claims come off as either dishonest or naive. And it does not help Israel advance its case to anyone who's not already convinced.

November 30, 2012

GOP's Benghazi gambit neither practical nor plausible

Weeks before a Presidential election, a terrible tragedy occurred in Benghazi, Libya: a terrorist attack left four Americans dead, including the U.S. Ambassador. Politics is politics, so have at it. Since Americans went to the polls and re-elected President Obama to a second four-year term, however, treating Benghazi as Watergate 2.0 has become gratuitous.

There is a need to step out of the he-said-she-said moment. The entire premise that Susan Rice (our Ambassador to the United Nations) is under suspicion, or that any nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State should be blocked until we get all the answers, is neither practical nor plausible.


What happened in Benghazi was horrible and tragic, and very possibly preventable. But it shouldn't have taken The Daily Show's Jon Stewart to point out the intrinsic hypocrisy -- that Condoleezza Rice sailed through confirmation for Secretary of State despite having knowingly lied about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" while she was National Security Adviser -- and no one in the Bush administration was ever held to account for intelligence gaps in the lead-up to 9/11, when
nearly 3,000 people were murdered by Al Qaeda on U.S. soil. The United States continues to face foreign policy challenges around the world, and tying up key Administration assets and distracting public attention does our national interest little good. Any changes we need to make in our security deployments and intelligence vetting will not be facilitated by a process that has been antagonistic since a few hours after the attack. We need a strong and credible Secretary of State. And as has been noted, the fact that many Republicans would be happy to see John Kerry nominated instead of Susan Rice carries the unseemly scent of partisan angling for his Senate seat.


It makes little sense to argue that elements within the Obama administration would have opportunistically pushed the anti-U.S. protest angle in order to protect the President's anti-terrorism credentials ahead of the Presidential election. Even as a candidate four years ago, Barack Obama was being branded as naive for seeking to engage and win back the Arab and Islamic public. Mitt Romney consistently ridiculed Obama's foreign policy as the "apology tour", and blamed Obama's "appeasement" of radical Muslims even before the State Department had a chance to comment. With all this, if the Obama team were really looking to manipulate the information, it would have been far smarter to chalk up Benghazi to a one-off terrorist attack -- barely a blip amid the overall successful fight against Al-Qaeda. So, when Ambassador Rice went on all the Sunday morning shows and suggested the Consulate attack was connected to a current wave of popular protests across the Middle East, she was implicitly singing Romney's tune.

No one has been nominated yet to be the next Secretary of State, and it's not even clear how soon Secretary Clinton might choose to announce her own departure. The President won re-election with popular backing of his foreign policy performance, despite the early clamor over Benghazi. Republican Senators should settle down, and the Administration should follow the President's lead by not dignifying the attacks with anything beyond normal briefings and the investigation already underway.

Largely thanks to the Obama team's record of national security accomplishments, we again have real work to do, and the world is not waiting.

November 29, 2012

Condemning Palestinian statehood won't help Israel

The United Nations General Assembly will vote today to accord Palestine upgraded Observer status as a non-member state. Had the U.S. Congress been more supportive of the Oslo process following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, had the international community exerted more pressure on Yasser Arafat, had Shimon Peres called earlier elections to capture the Rabin sympathy vote, had President George W. Bush not insisted on early elections in Gaza that put Hamas legally in charge there, this might have happened ten years ago, and with full membership for Palestine. But that's not what happened.

So today, on the anniversary of the UN's 1947 Palestine Partition plan, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is calling on the UN to recognize Palestine as a state. Some of the normal prerequisites for statehood status remain unfulfilled: There are no permanent, recognized, demarcated borders; the territory is ruled by two different governments; and the terms of the Oslo Accords mandate the Palestinian and Israeli sides to cooperate and agree on final status, including statehood.

But realistically, Oslo has been dead for several years, and certainly since President Bush backed off serious efforts to facilitate progress between the two parties. Realizing this, Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister at the time, continued his own regular meetings with Abbas and even followed through on Ariel Sharon's planned unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And today, Olmert himself is backing the Palestinian bid. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done little to back up his public calls for Abbas to return to the negotiating table, while expanding Jewish settlements across the West Bank and empowering Hamas while generally ignoring Abbas.

Especially following the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Abbas needs to proceed with today's vote. He needs to show something to remain relevant, and Israelis who retain any hope for eventual peace should realize that they need Abbas to succeed over Hamas, in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

While today's vote is not a vote against the existence of Israel, it definitely has an element of rejecting Israeli settlement expansion and U.S. neglect of proactive diplomacy. There are no guarantees, and today's vote may be ill-timed. And it will be used by Iran and others to cynically advance their campaign to isolate Israel diplomatically and otherwise. But the Palestinians will get their way today, albeit without the support of Israel or the United States. Given this reality, where do we go from here?

Israel and the United States have already decided to downplay the statehood status. This is more constructive than just cursing the darkness, but far from lighting a match. A year ago, the last time Palestinian statehood was being advanced at the UN, I blogged on how much easier it would be for Netanyahu to just work on peace negotiations with Abbas, both substantively and tactically as a way to undermine or forestall any statehood effort.

Even Netanyahu, and his coalition partners who more openly reject any territorial compromise, can reap some advantage from today's fait accompli. They can begin treating Abbas as the leader of a state -- not with ticker-tape parades through Tel Aviv, but by signing more formal agreements from economic relations to security cooperation and holding him more accountable for results. They can play up his role as the internationally recognized leader rather than giving Hamas more opportunities to escalate tensions and overshadow Abbas.

We can also use this as an opportunity to get more economic development and investment into the West Bank, by calling on European governments voting "yes" on statehood to put their money where their mouths are. Any effort to penalize Abbas for pushing the statehood issue will further erode his credibility and that of the peaceful path (Hamas has shown that terrorism gets better play with Israel). Israel needs a strong, vibrant, secure and prosperous Palestinian neighbor, and this is according to Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

Jewish organizations should feel free to condemn and criticize today's vote, but afterward they should also be held to account. If we as a community reject unilateral measures, and we claim that today's vote undermines the path of direct negotiations and a two-state solution, what will we be doing in 2013 to achieve that oft-stated goal? Are we willing to back up our own rhetoric with candid advice to Israeli leaders, with our own funds to support Israeli-Palestinian cooperative enterprises, and to promote genuine dialogue and engagement between Jews and Palestinians?

As Jews prepare to celebrate Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, we should consider whether we will continue to curse the darkness, just keep quiet, or start lighting flames to brighten the room we call the Middle East. If we as a community are not up to that task, then silence may be the best answer going forward. Merely paying lip service to a "two-state solution" can no longer help Israel or the Palestinians, and it won't stop Iran from achieving nuclear-blackmail capability.

November 19, 2012

Gaza's gifts

It is intolerable for Israel's major population centers to be under attack. Ideally, Israel wants a cease-fire with Hamas, with international guarantees, or at least some outside verification, which will further elevate Israel's claims for the next time around. Israel's military offensive to neutralize the rockets and missiles being launched from Gaza against Israeli civilians also has broader and less direct implications.


As well, this is not the first time a right-wing Israeli government elevates Hamas at the expense of the more moderate PLO, now embodied in the Palestinian Authority as headed by Mahmoud Abbas. During the 1980s, Israel did not mind the ascendance of Hamas as a way of hampering the PLO's operational and political strength.

In addition to making Israelis more secure -- at least in the short term -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaps further political advantage by diminishing Abbas and reducing the Palestinian leader's capacity to sustain a moderate course that might eventually compel Israel to finalize territorial compromises leading to a viable Palestinian state. Such an agreement and such a state used to be an Israeli goal, but under Netanyahu these are reduced to mere rhetorical flourishes. Beyond further cutting down Abbas, the Gaza operation also distracts attention from any potential peace initiative heading into the second Obama term. These may not have been considerations in his decision to counter-attack now, but they must definitely be seen as fringe benefits.

November 14, 2012

Peter Beinart faces the closing of the American Jewish mind

I disagree with Peter Beinart's call to boycott Israeli products from the West Bank. He went too far. Even J Street thought (or said) so, too. But boycotting him in Atlanta -- actually, dropping him from a scheduled appearance at the Jewish Book Festival there -- is beyond wrong. It's abdication.

Anyone aspiring or already claiming to be a leader within the Jewish community must recognize that with such honors and privileges also comes a long legacy of responsibilities. Jews are big dreamers, but we are also taught not to ignore the realities around us and among us.

Peter's latest book, The Crisis of Zionism, is about much more than boycotting the West Bank. He speaks to, and of, a whole generation of young Jews who are disaffected or otherwise turned off by the organized Jewish community. They are not anti-Israel, and eight days of "birthright" tourism aren't going to help. For too many young Jews, the hasbara and "yisrael hayafa" industry just no longer cuts it. Even if they do drink the Kool-Aid without resistance, we will have raised an intellectually untested and Jewishly unsophisticated corps of believers.
Serious questions go unasked and unanswered in any meaningful way. As Peter said in response to the cancellation, "I think the mistake is to think that trying to avoid discussion produces unity. It produces a false sense of unity." 

November 8, 2012

The wannabe Jewish vote, à la Bibi

There continues to be an astounding fascination with the Jewish vote, mostly within the Jewish community. But it was never all about us, and this year that's especially so. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reduced himself politically to a mere appendage of Jewish Republicans and big-money campaign donors. Even Israelis are noticing now. As for the rest of us, perhaps we can start getting back to reality-based politics, here and in the Middle East, and not be quite so proud of our community's king-making powers.


Jewish Republican activists may console themselves in the delusion that the Jews voting for Obama aren't REAL Jews, since Israel ranks only fourth or lower in deciding their votes. But then, most of the 30 percent who voted for Romney were voting because they are REPUBLICANS. Even in 1992, the sharply antagonistic President George Bush still managed to scare up 11 percent of the Jewish vote in his defense against the Democrat Bill Clinton.

The Jewish vote is clearly not in play, despite a marginal drop in its overwhelming Democratic bias. The vocal bulk of community advocacy organizations claiming -- however tenuously -- to speak on behalf of American Jewry had previously indicated their genuine or contrived concern with various policies and actions of the Obama administration, often inspired by statements or murmurings emanating from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

November 7, 2012

In defense of the Electoral College, briefly

Every four years, there's a proliferation of critiques against the Electoral College. I have a few thoughts on this, followed by a brief explanation of how the current system works.

In parliamentary systems, the head of government (usually the Prime Minister) and often the head of state (President or Chancellor) are determined not by direct election but by a parliamentary vote. The most direct form of democracy operates in Switzerland, where most major policy questions are decided by plebiscite (basically the same as a referendum). That works, as long as there's no need to account for minority rights or legislative and policy expertise.

If we got rid of the Electoral College, most likely Congress would fill that intermediary role, and given gerrymandering and incumbency factors, that vote would be significantly more skewed from the popular will than a state-by-state winner-take-all system. Last week's hurricane has meant that many thousands of would-be voters were not even counted in the popular vote, introducing another advantage of the Electoral College as is. I think our current system works best.

ELECTORAL COLLEGE -- in brief: The EC mechanism awards each state one vote per Congressional seat (i.e., two for the Senate and however many for the House of Representatives), totaling 538 (including three for Washington, DC). In nearly all the states, whichever Presidential candidate wins the majority in that state wins all the electoral votes from that state.

In rare cases, the candidate who wins the majority of total votes across the country fails to win the Electoral College vote. Additionally, the major party candidates tend to ignore the states where they enjoy guaranteed majorities and focus on the handful where the vote could go either way. People feel left out...

October 29, 2012

Benghazi worse than Watergate? GOP would know.

A terrible series of events transpired last month in Benghazi, Libya. As we all know, the U.S. Ambassador and three other U.S. personnel were killed in an organized, deliberate attack on the Consulate there.

In the days following the attack,  many questions and allegations were launched against the White House, largely by the increasingly right-wing Republican House of Representatives back in Washington and its media ally, Fox News. Why didn't President Obama immediately label the incident as a terrorist attack? Why did the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations initially suggest the Benghazi attack was connected to an anti-U.S. protest march when -- as we eventually learned -- there was no protest, only the stand-alone attack? Why did the State Department not supply more security forces as had been requested by post? And so on.

While it took days for the GOP's political and media establishment to fully gear up in this very timely cause, Governor Mitt Romney was framing Benghazi as an indictment against the entire foreign policy of President Barack Obama, even as recovery operations were still underway. He was definitely ahead of the curve on using this as a political weapon.

Ironically, the Benghazi attack -- which cost us the lives of four brave Americans -- pales in comparison to unspeakably catastrophic tragedies like the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington (2,800+ dead); the 2005 Hurricane Katrina (1,800+ dead); Operation Iraqi Freedom (nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers dead). Each of these death tolls can be in large or small part attributed to incompetent and/or ideologically forced decision-making by President George W. Bush and his advisers. And, by the way, banging the war drums and beating an apologetic retreat whenever necessary has been none other than Fox News. Yet in the years that have followed, almost no one has faced any official or political consequences for any of these failures (unless receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom counts).

And now, Fox News' own Brit Hume is feeling righteous enough to point out that "it has fallen to this news organization, Fox News, and a couple of others to do all the heaving lifting" on exposing the as yet unproven allegations of Benghazi wrongdoing and cover-up by the Obama administration.

There are definitely important lessons to be learned and applied going forward, and possibly careers to be ended. And it is never too late to start holding our government leaders accountable on national security. But if Republican politicians and journalists are going to lead the way on this, it would be nice of them to at least acknowledge the novelty, rather than acting like turning four deaths into Obama's Watergate -- or even WORSE than Watergate (and maybe Vietnam, too?) -- is not transparently political and contrived.

October 25, 2012

Thanks to GOP, Israel is now debatable

In the only Vice-Presidential debate for the current U.S. election cycle, Israel seemed to be the most frequently mentioned foreign country; in the third Presidential debate it was second only to...Iran. Republican ads attacking President Obama also gravitate to Israel as a touchstone of any candidate's righteousness and worthiness.

Presumably, the United Kingdom is even a closer U.S. ally than Israel is, and yet it's barely been mentioned during the current race for the White House. But Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't seem to mind. The UK is in no danger of being reduced to a partisan gag line. Israel's leaders, on the other hand, seem intent on being part of our American conversation, opening to question what has become automatic U.S. support regardless of political party.

This situation has emboldened many Jews and other Americans who feel Israel should NOT have enjoyed relative immunity from criticism or censure since 1973 (except for President Ford's threats and Bush 41's withholding of loan guarantees). Onetime AIPAC faithful like M.J. Rosenberg now applaud the shattering of Washington's monolithic and automatic obedience to one version of Israel's best interest (and of course, U.S. national interest, too...). For some, Israel's bad news is good news, but overall what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have greeted as good news is rapidly devolving into bad.

Obviously, Iran and Israel evoke very different emotions for most Americans, but they do share something in common: Both have been transformed into partisan wedge issues for Republicans to attack Democrats. In Iran's case, this elevates a rogue regime to the status of a global power, meriting a high priority in determining our next President.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-leaning allies in the United States have been consistently criticizing the President's commitment to the Jewish State even since before he became the nominee back in 2008. And now Israel is being framed as a central question for our national narrative. This may strike many Americans as a distraction at best, and an insult to our serious national problems at worst.

In no small part due to the Netanyahu-GOP public-relations strategy, Iran's status as a leading opponent and imminent threat to the United States is inflating the Islamic Republic beyond what it deserves -- even as President Obama has far surpassed his predecessor in rallying international support for crippling sanctions and effectively isolating Iran. By also inserting the Jewish State into the same balance of fight-or-flight and friend-or-foe, however, the Prime Minister has delimited and DIMINISHED Israel's status. Israel risks being transformed from a bipartisan, perennial, bedrock ally into a political and strategic PROBLEM to be solved and a weapon for one politician to use against another. In fact, "risk" may be too optimistic a word.

Environmental protection, reasonable gun control, health insurance reform and campaign finance reform all used to be bipartisan issues -- until Republican strategists realized they could be turned into partisan weapons against the Democrats. Politicians like Senator John McCain were forced to choose sides, or risk -- as in the case of the McCain-Feingold campaign reforms -- being at odds with their own party. By now, each of those issues has been reduced and marginalized. It's painful to watch U.S.-Israel relations head down the same path, and frustrating that this downgrade is being enabled by the Prime Minister of Israel and his staunchest U.S.-based supporters.

[I since stand corrected: In the third Presidential debate, Israel was the third most mentioned foreign country, behind Iran and China -- talk about the company you keep!] 

October 12, 2012

Hooray for Europe!

Romania, 1976 - I was shorter, but Communism was big.
Many of my friends on this side of the Atlantic (and on the other side of the Mediterranean) have reacted with derision and ridicule to the news that the European Union is receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. LOL, haha, gimmeabreak, etc.

Here are a few of my own reactions:


The eurozone is currently suffering through potentially catastrophic economic turmoil. While there were definite structural flaws in the new economic integration, and the major EU players have exacerbated matters by reducing rather than expanding short-term liquidity, the major crisis was triggered by our own financial brinkmanship and near-collapse here in the United States: The CDO and mortgage bubble, Lehman Bros, trillion-dollar budgetary black hole in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and much more. There's nothing funny about Europe's current woes in any case, especially given the increasing connectedness and see-saw dynamic between our two mega-economies, and the history of instability over there eventually costing Americans our own blood and treasure.


In a world that's increasingly out of balance -- and with violence and uncertainty flaring across the Middle East, the EU has been our key partner in promoting stability and progress. Its member states also comprise the bulk of our NATO allies. We should be wishing them well, and doing whatever we can to encourage and support them, not tear them down and poke fun.


When Alfred Nobel conceived of his peace prize, he wasn't thinking about ending conflicts in East Asia or Central Africa -- he was focused on Europe. The EU s the embodiment of many of those hopes and aspirations -- as the Nobel Committee put it:

The work of the EU represents "fraternity between nations", and amounts to a form of the "peace congresses" to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.


All those childhood summers spent bouncing around Europe during the 1970s involved no end of cumbersome border crossings between East and West, within the Communist Bloc, and even between some of the Western European democracies. Borders and virtual barriers were very evident, and not only because of the Soviet domination over half the continent. Europe's divisions went back centuries and the animosities were still very fresh. Indigenous Muslims and Gypsies were barely tolerated, if at all. And of course, the despair, privations and terror of Communist rule were as overwhelming as they were implausible. And it was all very real. Just visiting Berlin today is an out-of-body experience, as the once stark dividing line remains only as a course of paving stones, a short segment of the old wall, and memorial markers where East Germans were killed attempting to cross into freedom. The very idea of East Germany or exit visas seems so remote, and yet 25 years ago it was a reality.


Perhaps, as Americans living in the here and now, we measure the world too much by what we -- not others -- have achieved recently, rather than in any other generation. The challenges we face today can blind us to the struggles of every other nation, forgetting that the post-9/11 mirror poles used to check for bombs under our cars were once used in Berlin to stop East Germans from escaping between the axles.

As early as 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “Even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.” Such arrogance and exceptionalism have been among our greatest flaws and most powerful of inducements to keep pushing forward and saving the world. But this week, a little humility is in order, and yes, some appreciation for the dedication, aspirations and achievements of others -- especially those we call our friends.

October 11, 2012

Israel's elections lead to fewer choices

No one can be surprised that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for elections early in 2013, months ahead of the legal deadline. It's less common that Israel's faction-based political arena is static enough for everything to happen on time.

One key difference between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama relates to our different political systems: Each morning Netanyahu awakes in the PM's residence, his number-one goal for that day is to go to bed at the end... in the PM's residence. For Obama, on the other hand, regardless of how many circles a mid-level ally runs around him, each day he knows he'll be returning to sleep in the White House. This allows him to think a bit more expansively about the opportunities and challenges facing America and the world.

For Netanyahu, as for most of his predecessors, his primary calculation has centered on maintaining and increasing his personal political power and influence. Years ago, he was the leading advocate for direct election of the Prime Minister, figuring it gave him the best chance to get in over the heads of seniority-based faction leaders within the Likud Party. And he was right -- though the flawed process, which retained a Knesset's component, evoked Churchill's maxim about trying to cross the abyss in two steps.

Netanyahu has had to share the spoils of his office with people he dislikes -- politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the right and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the left. Barak has stayed on despite abandoning his own party affiliation, largely as a useful check against Netanyahu's many rivals within Likud and Israel's broader, growing right wing. Truly, his is a government of enemies.

Having pumped up the twin threats of Iran and Obama as much as possible -- against a backdrop of Arab Spring, summer, and fall -- Netanyahu is well-positioned to pick up extra seats and toss out a few of his hangers-on. Domestic issues like perennial religious and budget priorities are also in play. And so is former-PM Ehud Olmert, not quite exonerated but mostly cleared to return to politics.

The only aspect that might have been surprising -- Netanyahu's contention that the dangers facing Israel demand a clear decision by the Israeli electorate -- is also no surprise, given the way he has inflated the specter of Iran (and, yes, of Obama) to the brink of irrelevance. This was demonstrated by his recent "eh, never mind" United Nations speech, which pushed off any urgency on Iran's nuclear program until next spring at the earliest and also fell in line with President Barack Obama's consistent strategy and perspective.

Regarding the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu has obvious ideological reservations about making any substantive concessions. As a side benefit, the longer Israeli-Palestinian tensions fester and flare, the less invested Israeli voters feel in any effort for a long-term solution -- and the more they rally around a bunker-mentality leader like Netanyahu.

Having lived in the States for a number of years, Netanyahu is well aware of our own forthcoming elections. And one televised debate notwithstanding, he's a bit worried that Americans will re-elect the current President. So Netanyahu needs to appear both conciliatory toward Obama and secure back at home. Being re-elected as Prime Minister -- and without Lieberman or Barak pulling him down and cutting their own side deals -- will be the perfect formula.

October 3, 2012

Nothing ever happens on my block

On our latest visit to my folks, in the same house where I grew up, I finally met some of the new families who've been restocking that quiet suburban block with young kids, after three decades of mostly adult living. They hold block parties and July 4th parade activities, and generally hang out on the street at the end of a day. Great!

One of the houses still devoid of young kids is where Andrew grew up. He was a couple of years younger, and we'd sometimes visit each other for what today would be called "play dates", We also just ran around the neighborhood, climbing trees and filling afternoons with forgotten pastimes.

I hadn't seen or heard of Andrew in probably 25 years, but last month the talk on the street was all about him. Turns out, this smart kid with the strange father and quiet mom had lived out his adult years as a criminal, including an 18-month stint in prison. Then finally, he got himself into a police chase after the stolen SUV he was driving clipped another car waiting to get past an accident scene. On a secluded path between the train tracks and the Schuylkill River, not far from where I learned to windsurf, he ambushed the officer -- an Iraq veteran and father -- with his Beretta. Before dying, the officer returned fire, hitting Andrew. My former sometime playmate, who reportedly had told friends he'd never go back to jail, then shot himself in the chest, ending his unfortunate and evidently miserable life. 

The fallen Marine is a huge tragedy for the community and his young family, and the first fatality for his township's police force. 

For myself, it's sobering to think what if any decisions and influences might have altered the course of a self-centered only child with little patience for wrong answers. It's far-fetched to think any of us growing up there should have done anything to intervene -- who stays in touch, anyway? I do feel a special burden and even guilt, just for having briefly been part of his circle on a small street with two-dozen homes. And instead of the old man who'd designed the ejection seat for the Navy (the late Mr. Castleman), we'll now be known locally for the murder-suicide hoodlum who lurked among us.

Andrew's mother was already not well, and he'd been living at home. His web cam still faces down on the street from a second-floor bedroom -- which freaks out the neighbors. But they're definitely relieved that he's no longer around, especially with a whole new young generation to raise and nurture. And none of the young parents seems strange at all, thank goodness.

The quiet block where we're raising our own kids is not so different -- families with young kids living next to longtime residents who now boast grandchildren -- and, so far, no violent criminals. 

Dedicated to the memory of Officer Bradley Fox, Plymouth Township Police. Rest in Peace.

September 30, 2012

Netanyahu's 'hurry up and wait' moment

I have a few observations on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech last week to the United Nations General Assembly:

1. Had the Prime Minister delivered the exact same speech to the annual banquet of any major Jewish organization or to the Israeli Knesset... well, maybe he already has. In fact, as usual, the target audience for his UN speech seems to have been Israelis and Jews around the world. The world leaders and diplomats sitting in the GA Hall were really just props, or better, foils so he could be seen "talking truth to power". Brilliant, if no longer original.

2. Netanyahu implicitly ceded the peace process discussion to the Palestinians, whose leader Mahmoud Abbas understandably focused his GA remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. His only reference or rebuttal to the Palestinians was a brief nod to the concept of a negotiated solution and uniting the three great faiths.

3. By eclipsing the peace process with his usual lecture on medieval barbarians and clash of civilizations, and -- lest we forget -- the Holocaust -- Netanyahu allowed no hint that Israel is interested in substantively addressing the Palestinian issue. The message to European governments, and to the Russians and Chinese, is that their interest in regional stability can only be satisfied by helping Israel stop Iran. And Israel makes no promises after that.

4. Netanyahu's speech underscored the sense of many around the world -- including decision-makers whose support Israel and the United States still need -- that a nuclear Iran is an Israeli issue more than a global concern.

5. Forget the cartoon bomb that's generated so much buzz. The real last-minute prop in Netanyahu's speech was his notion of red lines for stopping Iran. It used to be that Iran had to be prevented from reaching "breakout capacity" -- the point at which it could continue to produce a weapon on its own. Then there was the "zone of immunity" -- the point at which Iran could continue its program without vulnerability to an aerial attack. Now the "red lines" connote the point at which Iran has enough highly enriched uranium to produce its first bomb ("90%") -- leaving a window as narrow as a few weeks (according to Netanyahu). Let's forgive the Obama administration for not updating its policy language fast enough to keep up with Netanyahu's moving goalposts and changing labels, but it now appears that all the hype was just that -- Netanyahu's red lines just happen to correspond neatly with longstanding U.S. policy. Or, as Netanyahu's people have phrased it, President Obama now agrees with the Prime Minister. Smooth...

6. One more shifting benchmark is the effectiveness of sanctions, which until last week were being downplayed by Netanyahu as largely ineffective. But after a phone chat with President Obama, and the leaking of his government's own report that international sanctions are actually having a great impact on Iran, his speech encouraged governments to continue pushing the very sanctions and diplomacy that his minions have been ridiculing.

7. The speech built up to a crescendo of apocalyptic doom and urgency, only to finish with no clear steps for implementing his red lines. After months of spiraling rhetoric and reports about the immediacy of the Iranian threat and the likelihood of an Israeli attack -- including widespread speculation as to whether such an attack would be delayed until after Madonna's summer concert -- Netanyahu pushed off any attack until the middle of next year, at the earliest. For those who honestly believe that next summer will already be too late to stop Iran, Netanyahu's speech was a blatant act of betrayal. The rest of us will have to scratch our heads and try to get back to serious business, which includes stopping Iran's nuclear program.

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." -- Shakespeare, Macbeth.

September 27, 2012

I don't hate Netanyahu, but I'll speak my mind.

One of my friends has expressed his sincere perception that I "really don't like" Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Here was my response:

"I like leaders who actually lead rather than play parlor games and keep giving essentially the same UN speech year after year. You've read my blog posts, where I try to explain the reasons for my disappointment. Unlike in U.S. politics, I have no dog in the fights between Likud and its flailing competition -- it hurts me to see Israel missing the boat and focusing on form over substance, especially when the stakes are so high."

Here is my more general explanation of why I criticize the elected leader of Israel and his actions:

I do want Prime Minister Netanyahu to succeed. But success for him seems to be muddling through just enough to shore up his domestic base and core of support in the United States, while kicking the can down the road -- to paraphrase Mitt Romney. For me, that's a recipe for long-term disaster. When the opportunity has presented itself once or twice over the past few years, with the certainty that my comments would be conveyed directly to the PM, I eagerly provided suggestions that I thought would advance Israel's standing with the White House and the international community. Earlier this month, I blogged against his plan to admonish the United Nations General Assembly TODAY regarding Iran -- if you're curious, please read my reasons here.

In 1988 with PM Shamir -- still keeping my thoughts to myself.
Ten years ago, I felt constrained by my professional obligations from publicizing my concerns about invading Iraq (we were busy lobbying the Bush White House at the time). I shared with a small circle of friends and colleagues my certainty that (1) invading Iraq would embolden and strengthen Iran, thereby making Israel less secure; (2) it was highly unlikely Iraq could have MORE weapons of mass destruction than it did BEFORE the decade of sustained embargoes and sanctions; and (3) even if Iraq really were building weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration was lying that it had credible evidence.

So I kept quiet back in 2002 and 2003, and just months later, publications like The New Republic were wondering how everyone could have been so wrong. I decided that -- if I could -- going forward I would be on record about my analysis and warnings. Not that my views will ever make headlines, but for my own self-respect, to give my own circle an opportunity to include my opinions in their own calculations, and perhaps to impact the politics and policy process. At the very least, my silence will not serve to empower the personal and political agendas of those with whom I disagree.

For many years, I did my best to reiterate and promote the official policies of the Israeli Government, but then I realized that so many champions of Israel -- on the right and the left -- were using the Jewish State to advance their own ideological agenda in Israel and to score partisan points in U.S. politics. When I found myself free to speak my mind, thanks to politicized personnel decisions, I decided to seize the moment for as long as I could.

Back to the original question: I don't especially like or dislike Prime Minister Netanyahu, though I would always give him my best advice with the goal of helping him make the most of whatever situation he chooses to seek for himself and for Israel. In the meantime, I will continue to speak my mind and try to listen to other views along the way.

September 23, 2012

Hello, World? Meet Israel, the Victim State.

As world leaders gather in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, the Israeli Government and Jewish organizations have pulled off a great feat: a quasi-official UN event focused on the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, most of whom were expelled from their homes in the immediate aftermath of Israel's 1948 founding. This big diplomatic breakthrough follows on the UN's first-ever official Holocaust commemoration, back in 2005.

Surely, this was a coup for Israel in its diplomatic score-keeping against Iran, the Palestinians and the Arab states, but how does this help the Jewish State on a world stage, as embodied in the UN General Assembly opening?

Israel stands for so many achievements, cultures, aspirations and industry -- and what it chooses to show the world is martyrs and victims? The Holocaust remains unique in terms of its focus, scale, and ingenuity. Unfortunately, our world has since eclipsed the Holocaust's depravity and numbers of dead, but the Holocaust -- while not Israel's most forward-looking message -- rightly demanded inclusion in the UN's pantheon of historic events and founding lessons, appropriately devoid of political overtones.

This latest UN event has trivialized the Middle Eastern victims thanks to its explicit "me too" purpose of matching any Palestinian grievances with Jewish counter-suffering. Anyone following the daily massacres in Syria and elsewhere might be wondering why the suffering of onetime Jewish refugees should rival that of present-day Palestinians, Somalis, Libyans, or Sudanese (some of whom are now facing mob violence, detention and Israel). What universal lesson can be applied from this experience: That Jews can also be victims (yet again)?

Israel ranks as a major world player in medicine and science, technology, democracy, humanitarian assistance and development, economics, and so many other fields. Its leaders are routinely consulted by their counterparts across Europe and Asia on a host of pressing issues... or at least they used to be.

It certainly stands as a tribute to the Middle Eastern Jews who endured suffering and dislocation so many years ago, and they have every right to seek maximum exposure and recognition. But Israelis and Jews at large need not have made this our opening pitch, underscoring our collective weakness and shared suffering (a classic anti-Semitic image, by the way) rather than our vision for a better world and a better region.

Like so many other enterprises these days, I get the sense that Israel's government arranged this latest promotion because it was able to do so, not because it was the best way to advance Israel's interests. Or maybe we've all just run out of ideas.

September 12, 2012

Rushing to blame, Romney disgraces us all

The attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya have reinforced the sense of danger and uncertainty in the Middle East, and should spark a renewed -- and ideally bipartisan -- about how the United States can continue to repair its influence and effect lasting stability in this often chaotic region.

Even before we could know the extent of brutality and barbarism involved in the lynching of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens -- let alone all the other facts and factors involved --  the Republican Party Chairman and the Republican nominee for President were rushing to blame President Obama's "failed" policies for these outrageous assaults on the honor and person of American diplomacy.

Leading the pile-on were many of my friends from the right wing of the Jewish, pro-Israel community. Had Obama only listened to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and shown him more respect while showering Israel with unprecedented military support and security cooperation, none of this would have happened. Ironically, this came hours after the eleventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks -- despite President George W. Bush's uncompromising and single-minded campaign against Saddam Hussein. Even more ironically, these attacks came nearly a year to the day since Israel's own ambassador to Egypt was nearly lynched by a Cairo mob -- and only saved through the personal intervention of... President Obama. What a way to say thank you.

September 5, 2012

Feel-good lectures at UN undermine Israel's security

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he will attend the UN General Assembly in New York later this month, specifically to re-warn the world of the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. Beyond that, he wants to impress on fellow world leaders -- and a global audience -- that Israel intends to use force to stop Iran's nuclear program regardless of current or potential international sanctions.

Ah, where to begin?


Israel definitely faces a significant threat if Iran acquires a deliverable nuclear weapon, and the whole Middle East would be plunged into a new regime of fear. But Israel -- and Jewish organizations -- are the absolute worst bearers of these warnings. When the Presidents of the United States, France and Argentina, and the UN Secretary-General, have issued such warnings, this reinforces the notion that Iran is a threat to all nations and not only to the Jewish State. So why reduce this to a "Jewish" issue, which only helps Iran stave off even stronger sanctions? 


The fact is, any sanctions are better than no sanctions, and especially the tougher variety that President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were able to convince the Security Council to adopt -- with the grudging assent of Russia and China. Every time Netanyahu dismisses the value of such sanctions, he discourages governments from ENFORCING the current sanctions. And every time he refers to a military strike -- before Iran even acquires an actual weapon -- he undermines the case for any sanctions. And by not giving sanctions a chance, he forfeits any possibility of immunity should Israel actually attack. 

July 10, 2012

Shift on "occupation" compels new pro-Israel strategy

More than at any time in this generation, Israel's friends will need to muster candor, creativity, and coordination. 

For true pro-Israel advocates, the Oslo process was a godsend. That is, for those of us who were then still intent on promoting and defending Israel's international standing, rather than imposing our own ideological stamp on Israel's domestic politics. Israeli policies were much easier to explain to those "undecideds" in America and elsewhere: Israel was taking clear and significant steps to resolve the status of the West Bank and Gaza, and of Palestinians everywhere.

Since the late-1990s, we have returned to pointing out the less obvious ways in which Israel remained committed to "doing the right thing," as well as justifying or downplaying actions that are less universally palatable (home demolitions and expulsions, military crackdowns, land expropriation, settlement "natural growth"). Now, perhaps for the first time since the 1982-84 Lebanon War, we face a situation that cannot be explained away by necessity or lack of alternatives, while the dangers facing Israel -- and the need for international support and legitimacy -- are not going away.

The ambivalent status of Israel's presence in the West Bank has now been officially denied by an expert panel appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Past governments have cited extenuating circumstances, or applied very broad definitions of Jerusalem's city limits. But never before has the Government of Israel simply announced that there is no occupation, and that there never was.

June 27, 2012

Confessions of an Election Day volunteer

Election day is a microcosm of the whole race, and our own individual decisions can reflect what we know and what we value.

I love helping out on campaigns. I'm not talking about collecting the big checks or taking out the full-page ads from behind a comfy desk. I mean going out and getting voters to turn out, one by one. Picking up and dropping off volunteers, especially the union stalwarts who just show up -- no matter what. Knocking on doors and reminding people. And even dealing with the hard-working kings for a day, the election day field organizers (having been one myself on occasion). Senior Hill staffers and college students all popping in to do whatever it takes, with rank and privilege irrelevant. Well, ALMOST irrelevant.

Back in 1988, I spent several weeks on my first New Hampshire Primary campaign. Very long days, late-night beers, and frigid nights sleeping on a succession of floors and sofas in the homes of local supporters. Waking up every day long before dawn, feeling soooo cold. Brrrrr! Fun, and fulfilling, right down to pouring wiper fluid across the windshield just to get some visibility. Going door-to-door in waist-high snow, and driving around on streets with a permanent layer of unmelting, compacted snow. Real enthusiasm, and seemingly endless energy. But we get older and -- just possibly -- wiser.

June 13, 2012

Israel shouldn't risk for peace? So say so

Those who don't want peace will never have a shortage of statistics and anecdotes to cite in support of their rejectionism. Israel's most vocal antagonists appear politically primitive, often tribal in their allegiances, fractious, racist, absolutist, and wantonly violent. Those who reject meaningful negotiations against such a backdrop feel justified in not taking the risk. But every choice carries a risk, and continuing along the same path day after day -- and settlement after settlement, unpleasant necessity after... is equally a choice, and with real risks. Own it.

My Republican friends like to talk about being responsible for one's choices, so OK. If the "facts on the ground" are so challenging and dispiriting -- and if one is unwilling to recognize even minor blame on Israel's side -- then opponents of the peace process should be clear about their position: There should be no negotiations. Israel's current government has not been clear, at least not in English and not to Washington. The good news for the wide spectrum of Israelis who have come back around to opposing or fearing any negotiations with the Palestinians, is that many months ago U.S. President Obama gave up on any serious effort to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the table.

June 5, 2012

Is Obama REALLY pro-Israel... Now? Now? Now?

Yet another Jewish group has met with President Obama, and again the messaging is focused on his record and commitment to Israel's security. This despite the fact that analysts and Israeli leaders agree -- publicly and privately -- that Obama has been an excellent champion for Israel's security, on all fronts.

By repeatedly reassuring ourselves that this President isn't planning to abandon Israel, American Jewish media and community leaders reinforce the basic insecurity of a large and vocal minority of Jews (and a majority of Israelis) -- if he really were pro-Israel, we wouldn't need to be reminded... Also, the fact that we need to keep hearing the President say it, and to report that he said it, sends an additional message to the world: All we want to hear is the recitation of the same old formula.

Before my career went local, I used to participate in very small and extended discussions with another world leader. He always included a Mideast advisor, and he always opened by discussing the latest developments regarding Israel. We would always thank him, and then switch the conversation to some other international concern. I came to understand that, of all the official Jews he got to meet, we were probably the only ones who weren't there to beat him over the head about Israel. We were happy to support his constructive relationship with Israel, but I also had an understanding with my Israeli colleagues, who are expert diplomats -- unless they specifically asked me to intervene on their behalf, I would leave it to them to represent Israel's interests. They did oblige me from time to time, and they seemed very pleased to have a Jewish group that did not see itself as Israel's first and last line of defense. After all, Israel is a sovereign state. And American Jews are not one-dimensional.

At the White House, as well, we should be able to cover Israel as needed, but focus on what we as Americans can be doing to help the President -- any President -- achieve his (and eventually, her) goals in the national interest. Unless there are well-founded fears as to his leanings and intentions, it may be best to avoid sowing further doubts by trumpeting the boiler-plate assurances.

We doth protest too much.