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...