November 24, 2013

Netanyahu's new rogue state is Israel

Hours after the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council (the "P-5") announced an interim deal that pulls Iran back from the threshold of nuclear weapons capacity, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done more than denounce the agreement. By reasserting Israel's right to attack Iran at its own discretion, even following this international accord, Netanyahu has effectively set Israel as the Middle East's new rogue state - even without actually attacking Iran.

With Iran formally committed to the agreement, Israel is now the nation standing defiantly against world opinion and the international community. None of those countries party to the agreement - including France and the United States - can now abide an Israeli attack. 

Israel is routinely criticized and condemned, with or without justification, for all manner of violations of international law. Yet it enjoys positive relations with dozens of countries and is seamlessly integrated into the global economy, and it has never directly defied the Security Council. Though the Council as an entity has not formalized the agreement, the P-5 and the European Union are all officially signed on. Agree or disagree (as I did elsewhere) with Netanyahu's assessment of the negotiations and the deal, he is now declaring Israel to be above the Security Council.

November 12, 2013

The inconvenient Beilis centennial

One hundred years ago this week, a jury in Kiev acquitted Mendel Beilis of ritual murder in the death of a Christian child. Half the jurors were literally card-carrying anti-Semites, members of the infamous Black Hundreds, and still they could find no plausible evidence to convict this Jewish man. The trial was followed around the world, and 20 years later, 4,000 people attended Beilis' funeral in New York.

Jay Beilis addressing diplomats and Ukrainian officials
Last month in Kyiv (note the Ukrainian spelling), we commemorated the Beilis centennial within the context of fighting anti-Semitism, with full participation by the Government of Ukraine and many other countries. As a consultant to the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, I had the opportunity to help facilitate. As Jay Beilis pointed out to us, countless thousands of Jews are alive today because his grandfather refused to confess to a crime he didn't commit, and the highly publicized trial inspired a new mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe years before the Holocaust, and before the mass-murder at Babi Yar, which occurred just the other side of town from our conference.

I believe the fact that neither Israel nor the United States is hosting any major event for this centennial reflects our own politics and mythology. In Israel, they already have the earlier Dreyfus Affair and Theodor Herzl narrative. In the States, the Jewish community is largely defined (and self-identified) as a post-Holocaust community -- even though most of us are descended from pre-War arrivals. And if there's a centennial to mark here, it will be the Leo Frank trial, which ended in the lynching of an Atlanta Jewish community leader and is popularly linked to the founding of the legendary Anti-Defamation League (which was also among the cosponsors of the Kyiv conference).

Ironically, U.S. officials were precluded from participating in the Kyiv conference due to the federal government shutdown. Even The Forward, whose Yiddish-language forerunner The Forverts at the time promoted Beilis as the trial of the century, was unavailable to participate in or report on the Kyiv commemoration. 

As a culture, we choose our heroes or they are chosen for us, and then we choose or invent new heroes when it's convenient. This may be something America and Israel have in common, as new (or renewed) societies.

At least the record has been honored where it was set. 

November 8, 2013

Netanyahu's fantasy date with destiny

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently acted as though Israel has a veto on any negotiations with Iran, as though reminding world powers - and Tehran - that Iran's nuclear program is only a concern for Israel and not for the entire region and the international community. Every step forward in the process has been derided, every sanction discounted, even as he says it's better than nothing. Even as he acts like the judge for all nations.

Netanyahu speaks as though only he and only Israel are concerned or actively fighting Iran's ambitions. He has already ridiculed the discussions underway in Geneva as "The Deal of the Century," even though limiting - and not completely dismantling - Iran's nuclear program was always the stated goal. He warns us all not to trust Iran, as though anyone outside Tehran trusts that regime. Anyone. This isn't about world leaders being naive, it's about working within political and strategic realities.

What Netanyahu won't acknowledge, is that neither Israel nor America has a way to decisively stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. The best option is some deal for verifiable controls on further enrichment and weaponization. While dismissing the use of sanctions or negotiations, the Prime Minister has offered no realistic alternative. None. 

Despite his tough talk, there is no surefire way to deny Iran a nuclear capability. Sanctions, blockade and assassinations have pushed Iran to the point of considering measures to verify and limit its program going forward. There has never been a point at which any U.S. President or Israeli Prime Minister could have permanently neutralized Iran's program, either successfully and effectively or without Israelis paying a catastrophic political and economic cost. Israel's own military experts have routinely warned against attacking Iran.