THE WEEK THAT WAS (We Wish it Wasn’t) [ssba]

THE WEEK THAT WAS (We Wish it Wasn’t)


Perhaps never before have Israeli and American Jewish liberals felt so angry, frustrated, and, above all, impotent regarding both Israeli and American policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Our red lines have been repeatedly crossed, our warnings have gone unheeded; we have little influence in Washington and less in Jerusalem and we are reduced, Cassandra-like, to cautioning darkly of inevitable catastrophes that will materialize in the near and medium futures.  Perhaps it is all too appropriate that Tisha b’Av is the next holiday on the Jewish religious calendar.

As the week from May 8 through May 15 unfolded, we were barraged by events we oppose and have warned against for years: Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the glittering and religiously toxic ceremony transferring the American Embassy to Jerusalem and, most horrific of all, the killing of 61 Palestinians and wounding of over 1500 Palestinians at the Gaza border fence as the culmination of the six week ‘March of Return’, led by Hamas, while the ceremony in Jerusalem proceeded.  Israelis supported all of these actions by wide margins.  This is on top of Israel’s biggest air operation in years, directed against the Iranian military buildup in Syria in the wake of Bashar Assad’s apparent victory in the seven-year Syrian civil war.  The other shoe has yet to drop in the latter operation; i.e., whether, when, and how Iran, together with its Hezbollah allies, will retaliate against Israel or maintain its Syrian buildup.

As I sit in a beautiful Jerusalem garden the morning after Shavuot waiting for the heat to drive me indoors, I am forced to contemplate what we on the Left who support Israel but abhor its current policies should do – and what we can do to make our voices heard in effective ways.  While neither Trump nor Bibi will be with us forever, their legacies – and especially the fears they have engendered – will continue to add to the violence and belligerence in the entire region for years to come.

Let’s unpack these issues one by one and see where we are and what we might do about it.

On the Iran deal, there is little we can accomplish.  The question is whether the European powers, together with Russia and China, who also have a stake in a non-nuclear Iran, can make it worth Iran’s while to maintain the safeguards intended to be locked in through the JCPOA.  President Rouhani of Iran is no western-style democrat, but he represents the only effective domestic opposition to the hardline Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC).  We should be empowering him in that opposition, instead of reinforcing the IRGC’s worldview that the West is single-mindedly bent on regime change.  The only hopeful development that can be discerned is that Iran apparently is by no means eager to get into a war with Israel or the US, would prefer to stay in the JCPOA, and may calibrate its actions accordingly, perhaps even including its military activities in Syria.

With regard to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, they seem to be at rock bottom, which by no means precludes their getting even worse. Nonetheless, it appears that, in the short run, the current Israeli policy of ferocious and murderous response to any Palestinian initiative to change the status quo is succeeding, at least for the moment.  I cannot believe that, at some not-too-distant point, Israel’s almost casual killing of over 100 Palestinians and wounding of over 7000(!) more will not come back and haunt us.

Israel’s actions on the Gaza border have already been raked over from every conceivable point of view and it is hard to add much new to the acrimonious debate, except this, based on years of observing and studying Hamas.  Black-and-white scenarios that separate the “innocent” (ordinary) Palestinians from the “guilty” (Hamas, along with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other such groups) rarely approximate reality, nor do they lead to effective policy, except in the shortest of runs.  Hamas has now ruled Gaza for exactly ten years and, since Israel makes it virtually impossible to leave, everyone living there must find a way to coexist with Hamas in power.  It seems clear that the “March of Return” was originally planned by independent groups (which should not even exist under the black-white scenario) but Hamas became a major player more recently.

There is no doubt that Hamas members (whether designated as operatives, soldiers, or terrorists) were among the tens of thousands of marchers, but there is likewise no doubt that the vast majority of them were ordinary Gazans, who are utterly fed up with the impossible conditions under which they have lived for more than ten years, and refused to heed the Israeli admonitions to stay home.  Belief that this continuous experience of horrendous living conditions with no realistic hope for change is what brought out the large majority of marchers is invidiously labelled the “Hamas narrative.” The other (Israeli) narrative is that the innocents were paid, forced, or both, and that they were simply a smokescreen for the terrorist arms, bombs, and kites.  In other words, ‘ordinary’ Gazans are solely pawns, to be passively trotted out to be killed or wounded whenever Hamas wishes.

This fantasy defies belief.  As many have pointed out, any self-respecting person cooped up in Gaza for 10 years would almost certainly seize the opportunity to get the world’s attention for their plight, whether fan or foe of Hamas.  And Hamas is eager to come to some sort of open terms with Israel.  Just last week, it offered Israel a 10 year hudna (truce), which was immediately and contemptuously rejected by Defense Minister Lieberman.  Israel, as by far the stronger party, can and must take the lead in trans­forming Gaza’s reality, of course taking into account Hamas’s response as well.  There is no doubt that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and calls for its destruction, but it also appears to accept the two-state solution in Article 20 its most recent ‘Document of General Principles and Policies’.  Israel must try to ‘engage’ Hamas since it knows it can’t destroy it. Instead, it seems to hew forever to its long- failed policy based on hope that Gazans will throw out Hamas if only their situation becomes horrendous enough, and that they will blame Hamas for the death and wounds inflicted by IDF snipers.

Of course the dichotomy between “peaceful, unarmed marchers” and “terrorists invading Israel” is simplistic and false.  Among the thousands of unarmed marchers there clearly were some who were determined to kill or capture Israelis if the opportunity arose – and it was indeed the IDF’s responsibility to prevent that opportunity.  But the other dichotomy – the one between killing and wounding thousands, on the one hand, and watching passively while the marchers invade Israel, on the other – is equally absurd.  The IDF and Israeli police have successfully and nonviolently confronted numerous Haredi marchers in Jerusalem and evacuated settlers from Gaza in 2005, so it is not exactly without experience in this area.

Finally, there is the specious argument that because the marchers’ official slogan called for the ‘Right of Return’, they were therefore bent on Israel’s destruction and that justified anything the IDF could do to stop them.  The fact is that the 1948 refugees and their descendants, who comprise the vast majority of Gaza’s population, will continue to demand RoR until some realistic alternative is presented to them, such as a genuine Palestinian state.  Those marchers were not in any way an existential threat to Israel, and should have been dealt with as protesters, not invaders.

So I want to invite all those who feel like I do about these calamities to do what they can, whether working on the midterm elections, supporting the many active and progressive Israeli NGO’s working for positive change, or helping to convince their friends and neighbors that this is not the way, and Bibi’s Israel can and must be changed.  And also, please support Partners for Progressive Israel in our educational activities that demonstrate a different way to support Israel, that does not involve lining up behind Bibi.

Paul Scham, President

The Guns of November [ssba]

The Guns of November

The calendar is currently full of anniversaries and commemoration of major events that happened exactly 100 year ago, during or in the aftermath of World War I, such as the Balfour Declaration on Nov. 2. A particularly horrendous anniversary is already more than three years old; namely, the outbreak of World War I, famously dubbed “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman, Unfortunately, recent events force inescapable comparisons to August 1914, with Lebanon playing the role of Serbia and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salmon (MBS) of Saudi Arabia as a far too believable Kaiser Wilhelm II, the chief villain back then, though there was (and is) far more than enough blame to go around. Will things now turn out as they did then?

As anyone who’s looked at the news during the last week knows already, MBS last weekend orchestrated (likely demanded) the resignation of Said Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, a Sunni Muslim who has always been close to the Saudis (he’s even a Saudi citizen). Hariri made the announcement from Riyadh, and is still there, leading to strong suspicions he is being detained, though he denied that a week later. Simultaneously, MBS was “appointed” head of a new anti-corruption agency and immediately arrested perhaps 500 leading Saudis on corruption charges, including 11 royal princes, i.e., his cousins. There is no doubt that MBS is using this to change the kingdom from a comfortable oligarchy run for the benefit of the several thousand descendants of its founder, Abdul-Aziz Al- Saud, into an autocratic dictatorship a la Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Orban, Duterte, and presumably the dreams of Donald Trump.

In fact, MBS resembles Trump more than any of the others, being similarly impetuous and inexperienced, though MBS has a better excuse; he is 31 while Trump is forty years his senior. Trump, clearly still glowing from his Saudi welcome in May and its purchase of $110 billion in US arms, has put himself foursquare behind his young friend. Trump also, like Obama before him, has supported Saudi Arabia’s brutal and seemingly pointless air war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has continued since 2015, turning Yemen into probably the worst basket case on earth, with no discernible political advantage.

MBS clearly sees that war, like several others, as really against Shi’a Iran, which has undoubtedly provided some help to the Houthis but no serious expert considers the Houthis an Iranian proxy, though their brand of Islam is a variant of mainstream Shi’ism. Then last week, a Houthi missile apparently landed near Riyadh, allegedly manufactured in Iran, which MBS declared an act of war, backed up by Trump. (By that logic, US gun manufacturers should be held liable for the damage and death their products cause, which extension Trump certainly wouldn’t approve of).

In June of this year, right after Trump’s visit, MBS, in concert with other Gulf states and Egypt, launched a fullscale boycott against Qatar, claiming it supports terrorists. It was immediately clear that their grievance against Qatar, though no democracy itself, rather stemmed from its support of al-Jazeera and its unflattering coverage of other Arab states, as well as Qatar’s independent foreign policy. While Qatar is not a model democracy itself and al-Jazeera has its own biases, it has been invaluable in bringing an infinitely better class of journalism to the Middle East and the rest of the world. Trump immediately tweeted his support for the boycott, though he’s since moderated that, belatedly realizing Qatar is itself a major American ally.

Of course, all this has transpired against the background of the apparent defeat of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and the victory of Bashar Asad’s forces, now completely beholden to his allies who enabled his victory in Syria’s bloody civil war, namely Hezbollah, Russia and especially Iran (in the latter case “proxy” probably fits.) Hezbollah suffered considerable casualties in Syria, but undoubtedly burnished its reputation, making it that much stronger in its Lebanese home, where it is both an independent (i.e. Iran-influenced) militia and a part of the governing coalition, which presumably leads us back to why the Saudis are disrupting Lebanese politics.

Israel has, of course, been keeping a watchful eye on both Lebanon and Syria, and has even admitted carrying out some bombings in Syria when fighting got too close for comfort, as well as destroying supply caravans headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite this interdiction, Hezbollah reportedly has now deployed 120,000 missiles aimed at Israel, many apparently with the range to hit Tel Aviv, not to mention Haifa and most of the rest of Israel. Israel of course has its own defensive and offensive capabilities but under these circumstances, if it a war of missiles, it’s hard to believe it would escape unscathed, perhaps more so than in any war since 1948. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, claims that Saudi Arabia is inciting Israel to attack Lebanon, though no evidence has been provided.

President Trump, of course, has played a menacing, if somewhat offstage role in this. He has made Iran his chief bête noir in the Middle East, almost comparable to ‘rocket man’’ Kim Jong Un in Northwest Asia. He has declined to recertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 JCPOA but, characteristically, left it to Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions and thus give Iran free reign to move towards a nuclear bomb, though it appears Congress is likely to decline the invitation.

So now it’s back to the 1914 analogy when, it is usually agreed, none of the European powers (with the possible exception of Germany) wanted war, but they found themselves in a horrendous one, nevertheless. Similarly, none of the current players seek a war, with the possible exception of MBS and perhaps Trump, both of whom are anxious to burnish their toughness credentials – and neither of whom has accomplished much in their respective short tenures. Trump has the advantage that a Middle East war would probably not directly involve the US, but you can bet he’d be lustily cheering from the sidelines and supplying as many armaments as he could.

Will cooler heads prevail? In this case, unbelievably, the cooler heads (everything is relative) belong to Bibi Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, the Iranian leadership, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and, perhaps, other Mideast notables such as Turkey’s President Erdogan. None would normally appear on anyone’s list of cooler heads. But here, compared to MBS and Trump, all the others are experienced and, though by no means necessarily adverse to war, probably have a more realistic idea of what war in this context might mean and almost certainly would prefer to avoid it. This is likely in strong contrast to Trump and MBS, neither of whom have any experience with it and don’t seem too worried about its prospect.

I personally think there won’t be a war at this time, though perhaps that is simply wishful thinking. But it is a striking and discomfiting circumstance to find our safety hostage to the ‘cooler’ heads of some of the most dangerous men in the world.

NOT a New Era for Israelis and Palestinians (for Better and Worse) [ssba]

NOT a New Era for Israelis and Palestinians (for Better and Worse)

President Trump has certainly made good on his promise to shake things up in Washington – and around the world.  I assume most readers of this article are as unhappy and angry about most (if not all) of what he’s doing as I am – and are appalled at the prospect of four more years on this roller-coaster.  But one area seems likely to proceed on its traditional voyage to nowhere, oblivious to Trump’s various promises about a ‘great deal’ and similar nonsense.  That, of course, would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is written after a week in which Bibi and Trump held their first meeting as  heads of government, which produced the expected hugs and kisses and, as well, blaring headlines about the U.S. “abandoning” the two state solution, which has already been pronounced dead or nearly so for years.  Maybe it is, probably it isn’t, but Trump’s pronouncement certainly did not cause its demise.  In fact, his statement , like most of his shoot-from-the hip remarks, almost certainly means little, other than giving further impetus to the stalemate (yes, I know it’s an oxymoron) that has prevailed for years.

In fact, probably the only ones really affected by it are the supporters of the Israeli far right in Israel, the US, and elsewhere.  Many of them apparently made the (always dangerous) mistake of taking Trump’s pronouncements seriously.  Sometimes they’re followed through more often they’re not, and sometimes his policy direction is totally different.  Anyone who’s followed the news lately has seen more examples of this than they can keep track of. Trump “promised a series of moves that gladdened their hearts; now they don’t know what to think (welcome to the club!).

Unlike issues such as immigration and trade where he also made very specific promises and has actually attempted to follow through, his Israel/Palestine-related measures have been conspicuous by their absence.  Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem?  Seemingly not happening.  A free hand on settlements? Two softly-worded but unexpectedly clear admonitions not to go crazy with them.  Jared Kushner making peace?  No sign of it.  And even David Friedman, Trump’s nominee as ambassador to Israel, notorious for is particularly vicious slanders and support for the most extreme ideas on the far, far right, is now desperately attempting to appear to be a born-again moderate supporting two states (not that I believe him, obviously).

In fact, one could well argue that Trump’s main effect on this issue so far is to provide a new impetus to those of us who do believe in two states and the long-term viability of Israeli/Palestinian peace, after 8 years during which our hopes were repeatedly dashed.  I should note that I am, on most issues, an admirer of Barack Obama, and even more so now that he has been succeeded by someone appallingly antithetical to the high standard of morality, patriotism, and erudition that Obama set.  But no one can maintain that Obama succeeded with regard to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  His high hopes and ideals invariably flopped and he was out-maneuvered by Bibi Netanyahu at almost every turn.  Unlike with most of his other failed initiatives, he cannot blame the obstruc­tionist Republican-controlled Cong­ress for this. Even his long-overdue absten­tion on UNSCR 2334, condemning Israeli settle­ments, was so late that it had little or no impact.  The only success he had in this arena was in negotiating and pushing through the Iran deal, which is not really “Israel/Palestine,” though it certainly makes Israel safer and removed one of Bibi’s favorite fear points.

Trump’s ignorance of and, seeming lack of concern with the issue forces us now to focus on the parties themselves and removes the vain hope we held for so long that a Hawaii-born deus ex machina would somehow resolve the conflict and sweep away the obstacles erected by the parties themselves.  One thing American liberals (not only, but especially American Jews ) can do is to educate themselves regarding Israeli peace and social justice initiatives, which often get lost in the flurry of internationally-based news.  Israelis are hurting economically – as shown most spectacularly by the 2011 ‘tent cities’ protests – a fact most Americans are only dimly, if at all, aware of.  This is illustrated by a favorite factoid of mine from a 2016 Pew Research Center poll. Thirty-nine percent of Israelis named economic as Israel’s main problem, while only one percent of American Jews thought it was Israel’s most important problem.

Prof. Danny Gutwein of Haifa University is one of Israel’s most prominent public intellectuals addressing this issue and connecting the issues of occupation and economy.  For those planning to attend the upcoming J-Street Conference Feb. 25-28 here in Washington, D.C., he will be speaking there, as well as many others who will be discussing priorities tor this current period.  For more information on Danny Gutwein, see the PPI blog. He will also be speaking on the subject at the University of Maryland in College Park on Feb. 28 and in New York later that week.

This comes at a time when the parameters of the Israel/Arab conflict are changing fundamentally. The cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy for many years was opposition to dealing with the Palestinian issue in an international or regional forum, because it feared being ganged up on by the Arab states.  It is a mirthless irony that Bibi and parts of the Israeli right are now hawking a regional ‘solution’ to the Palestinian issue, based on the very real perception that in recent years many of the major Arab states are now more fearful of ISIL and Iran, enemies of both Israel and those states, than they are of Israel.  However, what the right won’t understand is that the sine qua non for ANY open peace or deals with any Arab country has an absolute precondition of first allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state. The governments of those states realize that their own domestic legitimacy cannot withstand a deal with Israel that ignores the Palestinians. It is time that Bibi recognized that too.

The even bitterer irony is that for most of its existence, Israel has claimed that the enmity of the Arab states prevented peace.  Now, it is the Arab states who want peace – otherwise Bibi wouldn’t be hawking his regional plan – but the settlers and their allies who support the occupation refuse to allow progress on that front. They are essentially holding Israel hostage to their messianic dreams – and harming Israel’s real security, which can only come with its recognition of a Palestinian state and the peace with most, if not all, Arab states, which would follow. They are the true dangers to Israel.

I am not at all blasé regarding the very real threats that President Trump poses to the US and to the whole world.  However, he may be (totally inadvertently) doing a real service to the grassroots efforts to further Israeli/Palestinian peace.  But there is no time to lose!  He may well say something completely different tomorrow.

It’s STILL the Occupation… [ssba]

It’s STILL the Occupation…

I’m sure many of my readers enjoy the eclectic and erudite essays of Michael Koplow, disseminated as “Ottomans and Zionists” and also by the Israel Policy Forum, of which he is the policy director.  I generally agree with his point of view, though I’m often convinced  that he doesn’t take his own logic sufficiently far.  This feeling was so strong with regard to his current column that I had to write this rejoinder. (I’ll pause while you read his article.)

As you just read, he strongly critiques the unique standard Israel is not infrequently held to in international forums.  In this case, an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands with an Israeli competitor after a match and was sent home.  I should emphasize that I absolutely agree with Dr. Koplow that this is outrageous and the reactions to it should have included some of the further societal critiques he suggests.

But there is one crucial aspect of the context missing from his critique; namely, the word “Occupation.”  In my view, that is the primary (though by no means sole) reason for this phenomenon of singling out Israel and Israelis for this treatment.  This is the 50th year of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, and no one sees any likelihood of it ending any time soon.

Now, the Occupation in no way justifies this behavior, nor is it one of the major atrocities in the world today.  I know that Dr. Koplow does not support it, and the IPF is engaged in a new campaign to try to end it.  But the fact that this salient aspect of the situation that gives rise to the all-too-common treatment of Israel goes unmentioned is itself curious.  In fact, it plays into the hands of the current Israeli government in ways that I am sure Dr. Koplow doesn’t at all support, but his article nevertheless gives aid and comfort to a pernicious worldview.

That worldview is the updated version of the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history; namely, that they (i.e., the whole world) hates us (the Jews), and will always hate us, and that there is nothing Israel (or the Jewish people) can do about it.  We have to simply keep our own counsel, do what we feel is necessary, and recognize that we will always be attacked whatever we do.

That is clearly the message that is put out overtly, in increasing measure, by Prime Minister Netanyahu and many of his coalition partners.  They have no doubt that Israel will always be “a nation that dwells alone,” so why not expand settlements, spit in the world’s eye, and increase the pressure on foreign support of NGO’s, since “they” will always hate us.

In fact, it is the Occupation that is now the overwhelming source of anger against Israel – and ending it would liberate Israel from its psychological, human, military, and financial costs, as well as ending most (certainly not all) support for BDS and other anti-Israel measures.

Now, I do not want to overstate the case.  There is undoubtedly a core of genuinely anti-Israel sentiment that would reject the end of the Occupation and see it just as a step on the way to Israel’s eventual demise.  Israel would remain under threat; ending the Occupation would not really affect that hard core.

But the vast majority of those whose resentment against Israel has grown considerably in the last 15 years would turn their attention elsewhere.  Europe, for example, is labeling and boycotting products from the settlements.  It has no other major dispute with Israel.  The Sunni states, which are now Israel’s de facto regional allies, cannot make their relationship overt and public because there first must be a Palestinian state.  As they have repeatedly made clear; after that, all options are open.

Then why is Israel, whose transgressions are far less violent than, to make a random and far from complete list of vicious states, singled out?  (Any such list would of course include North Korea’s treatment of its own people, China’s treatment of Tibet and dissidents, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and support for terror, the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s aggression, Erdogan’s wholesale oppression in the wake of the failed coup, etc., etc.) For many the only acceptable answer is anti-semitism.

But that is the wrong answer, or at least constitutes only a tiny part of it.  It is that Israel holds itself out as – and in many ways is – a modern, progressive, westernized nation recognizing the rule of law and rejecting discrimination.  That is partly true.  But Israel’s Occupation and repression of Palestinians flies in the face of that.  No other country on the (admittedly incomplete) list above is in that position.  Yes, there is a double standard, and Israel benefits tremendously from it.

But there are costs to the double standard – and one of them is that ruling over another nation without rights to vote or control its own destiny, is unacceptable today.  Israel has transgressed that rule for 50 years.  That is at the root of Israel’s isolation.  End that and most (not all) of the anti-Israel rhetoric and activities would dry up – as well as benefiting Israel itself in a variety of ways.

There are at least two points I am making that will likely be distorted, so I will reemphasize them:

1) There is no justification for the behavior that Dr. Koplow rightly criticizes.

2) All opposition to Israel will not cease the moment the Occupation ends.  But the mass support will fairly quickly fade away.  The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are the poster child for Israel’s repressive policies.  Once there is a credible, viable Palestinian state, Israel will not be perfect, but its issues will not stand out as they do now.

It is still the Occupation, and ending it must be the chief goal of anyone who cares about Israel.

Israel’s Unprecedented Geopolitical Strength [ssba]

Israel’s Unprecedented Geopolitical Strength

It may seem counterintuitive, or even downright strange, but Israel’s geopolitical position is probably stronger now than at any time in the country’s history. This is likely to continue at least in the short-to-medium term, but looming long-term challenges should give some pause to Israel’s current leaders. They should recall that even way back in the 1960s, then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sardonically referred to Israel as “Shimshon der nebekhdiker,” or “poor little Samson.”

It is therefore rich with irony that it is undisputed among Republican presidential candidates that President Barack Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus,” while Hillary Clinton promises “no daylight” between the United States and Israel, instead of advocating policies that would strongly encourage Israel to ameliorate the Palestinians’ untenable situation.  Bernie Sanders, who once spent a year on a kibbutz as a young man, seems to prefer to avoid the issue entirely, which is perhaps a different kind of irony.

It is worth reviewing Israel’s markedly changed security situation since its establishment in 1948. At that time Israel considered itself in genuine existential danger from the Arab world, and with good reason. This danger lessened with its victory in the 1967 Six Day War, and the Jewish state’s safety from an Arab attack was largely sealed with its 1979 treaty with Egypt. However, a sense of insecurity still pervaded Israel once it became clear that peace with Egypt was not going to be followed by normalization with the rest of the region.  Read More »

The Iran-Saudi-US Balancing Act – and Israel: Something Must Give [ssba]

The Iran-Saudi-US Balancing Act – and Israel: Something Must Give

A slightly different version of this article was first published by the IPI Global Observatory

The first milestone in implementing the Iran nuclear deal has come and gone. As the agreement’s proponents expected and opponents denied would happen, Iran has poured cement in its Arak reactor and rendered it unusable. More unexpected was the prisoner exchange that accompanied it, with Iran releasing four Americans and the United States freeing seven Iranians. In addition, Iran captured and then quickly released a group of US Navy personnel whose boats had drifted into Iranian territorial waters—a fact that the US did not contest.

The reactions to these developments from opposing sides were predictable. Supporters of the deal—most world leaders and domestic supporters of US President Barack Obama—saw it as proof of the efficacy of diplomacy in general and the president’s policies in particular. Opponents of the deal—most Israelis and members of the US Republican party—saw it as a humiliating capitulation. All Republican candidates vying for nomination for this year’s presidential poll declared that things would be very different if they were in power. Read More »

Nameless and Leaderless in Jerusalem [ssba]

Nameless and Leaderless in Jerusalem

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been around for generations, it still has the capacity to surprise. Even the experts are confused by the current violence that has been roiling Jerusalem for weeks now. Is this the long-awaited third intifada? What is causing it? Why is it centered in Jerusalem, not the West Bank? Who is leading it, and why are the principal actors teenagers with household knives? In fact, similar questions were asked at the beginning of the two previous intifadas, and of the Palestinian Revolt during the British Mandate. Why now? What for?

Admittedly, this wave of violence has unique features, but though the world and the context have changed since the Second Intifada ended more than ten years ago, the plight of the Palestinians hasn’t. The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is cited by many as the focal point, but there is no leader or organization to ask and no press releases to consult. The traditional players – the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Fatah – are clearly not in charge. Nor do we see crowds of hundreds or thousands as we did previously, though it seems most Palestinians are supporting “it”, whatever “it” is.

Even in the absence of links to the traditional actors, the conditions that gave rise to the current situation of terror and violence are not hard to discover. Palestinians have exploded in violence at least three times in the last eighty years when they perceived no future for themselves and no control over their lives, and have used whatever weapons were at hand. What is different today is that, in the age of ubiquitous social media, organizations, spokespeople, bulletins, etc. can all be dispensed with. Some are calling it the “smartphone intifada,” since all seems to flow through them.

Read More »

Unpacking Bibi’s Iran Deal Strategy [ssba]

Unpacking Bibi’s Iran Deal Strategy

For some of us the period since July 14, when the nuclear agreement with Iran was announced, has been immensely hectic. I and many of my friends have been reading, commenting, publicizing petitions to Congress, and generally doing our best to get the word out that most American Jews do not oppose the deal and that many (most, according to some reliable polls) support it. Some of us think that the deal is a triumph of diplomacy; others think there is simply no alternative. Obviously, lobbying has been intense and increasingly bitter on both sides.

As I write this on Saturday night, Sept. 5, it looks like the deal will pass, since more than 34 senators (all Democrats) have said they support it. Perhaps we will reach 41 senatorial supporters, which would prevent the Senate from disapproving it, and thus avoid a certain veto by President Obama. Republicans have vowed to do their best to prevent it from going into effect, and hope that if they win the presidency next year, the next president will annul US approval, as he or she will have the right to do.

This may be a good time to examine why Prime Minister Netanyahu broke all diplomatic precedents by actively opposing an American president on a major American debate, especially when it was probable that Obama would win. This question of “why?” has become a cottage industry in Israel, where even many who oppose the deal have condemned Bibi’s heavy-handed strategy as calculated to seriously alienate the United States, Israel’s primary ally. We who support the deal should keep in mind that we only won this round – assuming we did – because the congressional deck was for once stacked for us; constitutionally we only needed 1/3 of one house of Congress. The fact is that Bibi’s and the Republicans’ arguments – which are essentially the same – seem to resonate with about half the American people. Of course Bibi knew he would most probably lose, whatever he was telling people. Everyone knew that the numbers were against him. Read More »

Not In My Name! [ssba]

Not In My Name!

As an active member of the Washington, D.C. Jewish community since 1988 (except for six years when I lived in Israel), I want to express my indignation at the use of Jewish community institutions, locally and nationally, for the partisan political purposes of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, and against the policies of President Barack Obama with regard to the Iran nuclear deal.

Two recent polls have shown that American Jews support the agreement by considerable majorities, 49 percent to 30 percent in one by The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and 60 percent to 40 percent in one sponsored by J Street, which supports the deal. Contrary results were found by a poll taken by The Israel Project, which opposes the deal, 45 percent to 40 percent against the deal. All of these polls make clear that a considerable portion of American Jews support the agreement. Thus, I find it reprehensible that a number of Jewish community institutions are lobbying their members to oppose it and are making their facilities available to the well-financed campaign to defeat it, thus conveying the widespread impression that American Jews are united in opposition.

No institution or government can be run by opinion polls, of course. However, on an issue of this importance, the willingness of Jewish community leaders to kowtow to official Israeli policy against the wishes of those who they claim as their constituents is outrageous. Read More »

Let’s Make Good Use of this Crisis [ssba]

Let’s Make Good Use of this Crisis

By Paul Scham and Ilan Peleg*

The phrase “No good crisis should be wasted” is by now a cliché, but it is very much applicable to the current situation, following the Iran nuclear agreement signed in Vienna on July 14. The agreement constitutes a potentially game-changing development, not unlike the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles. That process ultimately failed because its supporters underestimated the ability of its opponents – both Palestinian and Israeli – to derail the movement toward a comprehensive settlement. In this case, although the opponents are quite different (an unholy alliance of Israeli hardliners, Iranian Shi’a nationalists, Saudi Arabia, and the Republican Party), the main battle will be decided in Congress—assuring that President Obama has sufficient support to sustain his veto of the probable rejection of the deal.

The Iran deal is a compromise, as is any deal, by definition. Most importantly, through a combination of incentives and safeguards, the agreement provides the best mechanism to prevent an Iranian bomb today and well into the future. The fact that opponents of the deal are unable to articulate a better alternative – other than unrealistically claiming that Iran, a sovereign nation that has existed for 2500 years, can be humiliated into essentially renouncing its sovereignty – is a proof that this deal is necessary. It is a triumph of diplomacy over fear.

But the opportunities created by this large-scale diplomatic crisis go much beyond the Iran agreement itself. The deal reached in Vienna should be used as a stepping-stone to reengage the region in a focused effort to comprehensively tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Careful and complex diplomacy will be required. Read More »

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