Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Israel's sad loss.

There is noting positive to be said about Israel’s election.  Nothing.  I know it’s just hours after the results have been published and one has to wait to see the makeup of the government.  But, whatever that may be, there is no question that hard line conservatism prevailed.  Bibi’s deplorable campaign built on fear, reneging on his previous commitment two states and finally an appeal to racism, astoundingly made on election day while the polls were still open won the day.  It is said that he is charismatic.  He certainly is a skilled orator and effective spokesman for his point of view.  My view is of a demagogue driven as much by personal ambition as by anything else.  In this vote, he used negativism and scare tactics to convince constituents of other rightest parties to vote Likud.  That gave him enough of an edge to virtually insure another term.  It didn’t change the ideological balance in the country or necessarily in the new Knesset.

Elections are not only won, they are also lost.  Israel’s left has been at sea and adrift for years.  They performed marginally better this time around because they forged a political alliance.  The same is true for Israeli Arabs.  But throughout the campaign we heard that Herzog suffered a substantial charisma-deficit.  It’s hard to see how that works at a time when a party and point of view is trying to reenergize itself.  An Israeli relative who thinks his country is headed in the wrong direction told me months ago that the election would make no difference.  He’s a visiting academic in the US for this and perhaps another year, but will return home thereafter.  My guess is that he didn’t vote.  If Herzog lacks charisma, people on the left or even left of center suffer something worse: a passion-deficit. 

While campaigning, Barack Obama often asked the assembled, “are you fired up and ready to go?”  Yes, they responded.  Whipping up the crowd never hurts.  But I think the question, or the need to ask it, implied that, unlike those on the right, liberals seem to have lost their fire.  They complain about the state of things, have the best of instincts and even intentions, but aren’t sufficiently fired up enough and ready to go.  Israel’s left definitely has that problem.  So do we, but that’s another subject for another time.  If real estate comes down to the three L’s, so too does politics.  Leadership, leadership, leadership is what changes the dynamic.  Israel’s right seems to have it.  The Zionist Union and Israel’s left does not.  At the very least, they have been unable to evoke the passion necessary to win the right to govern.  So Israel, with a government that will likely be more cohesively dominated by the political and religious right, remains on a course.  

If we take Bibi at his latest word, that translates into a path toward a single state with all of its concurrent possibilities, none of them good in either the short or long term.  I don’t think the early Zionists were dreaming about the potential of a one sided “democratic” apartheid state.  Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, and also the birthday of the late Stephen S. Wise, a great American rabbi, liberal and an early Zionist leader.  He was my father's friend and mentor.  I don't think Wise would be happy about what happened in Israel on the anniversary of his birth.  What might follow is too awful and painful to contemplate.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

If not treasonous, certainly treacherous.

In July of 1972, the actor and political anti-war activist Jane Fonda made a controversial visit to North Viet Nam.  Once there, she appeared in the media and posed for photographs, which she now calls a “huge mistake”.  Many of those who supported the war considered her a traitor — “Hanoi Jane”.  Some veterans continue to be bitter.  Just this January when she made an appearance in Maryland, a protester was quoted by the Frederick newspaper: “She encouraged North Vietnam to pull away from the negotiations table…She got Americans killed.”  Fonda was a private, albeit high profile, citizen.  But her alleged interference with negotiations being conducted by the Nixon administration was considered treasonous.  While the president was a Republican, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  That was also the case when months later he negotiated with China, considered one of our archenemies.  No one on Capital Hill questioned the president’s right to do so, much less inserted themselves in the process.  They understood the constitutional role of the executive branch.

When elected legislators insert themselves into the conduct of foreign policy, into the negotiating process, it’s not like Fonda in Viet Nam but another matter entirely.  It was bad enough when the House Speaker circumvented diplomatic norms by inviting Bibi Netanyahu to lobby against a potential treaty before a joint session without consulting the White House.  Seeking to directly undermine negotiations under way by the president and secretary of state is beyond the pale.  Perhaps the letter sent by GOP senators to the Iranians isn’t treasonous but it surely is treacherous.  If this were merely the ill-conceived work of freshman Tea Party Senator Tom Cotton, we might see it as an inexperienced faux pas.  With forty-seven signatories including those of Mitch McConnell, John McCain and a number of would be presidential candidates, it borders on being un-American.  It flaunts the separation of powers and makes us look a banana republic.

Richard Nixon, already under the cloud of Watergate, negotiated a reversal of a years old China policy unchallenged by the Democratic majority on the Hill.  Everyone understood their respective roles.  When our duly elected president is engaged in something of relatively less consequential nature — Iran is no China — the Republican leaders in today’s Congress act far out of line.  It seems that their irrational hate for our president has no bounds.  They are hardly the loyal opposition; they’re an embarrassment.  They also put the country and the world in greater danger and if blood is shed it will be on their hands.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bibi's disturbing misadventure.

Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of the State of Israel.  As its elected leader, he rightly speaks for his nation.  He may speak as a Jew, but he does not speak for the Jewish people.  No one does.  Indeed, what’s different for Jews relative, for example, to Roman Catholics, is that we have no pope-like figure.  In the few places where there is a Chief Rabbi, even in Israel where he has some government authorized functions, he speaks only for his specific community, in this case some of Israel’s orthodox Jews.  Bibi, is in the final days of an election campaign.  Even if he continues as prime minister, he will remain in power only through a coalition.  Polls suggest that his party is likely to gain some seats in the Knesset, but even then only the low 20s out of 120.  That of course is the nature of parliamentary systems, especially one like Israel’s where thirteen parties currently hold seats.  Contrast that with the UK, where coalitions are rare and where two parties dominate.  So, Netanyahu, by virtue of his office speaks for Israel, but not for the Jewish people.  Certainly not for me.

Listening to Netanyahu’s speech today, was eerily like listening to members of the Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq war.  It was a war that he had both urged and supported.   Listening to his words, I could help thinking about Dick Cheney and Condi Rice’s warnings about a mushroom cloud.  The applause  of the assembled, accompanied by loud hoots on the Republican side, again brought back echoes of the weapons of mass destruction frenzy built up only to be followed by a war based upon deception and salesmanship.  Sadly, Netanyahu did the same. This is not to suggest that Iran is an innocent or that it does support some very bad actors and may have broad ambitions.  It is rather that what we witnessed today was a sales pitch by a political candidate who will undoubtedly use video of the applause he garnered to strengthen his position back home. 

Not everyone is the room was happy.  Here’s is how Nancy Pelosi reacted to his remarks, “That is why, as one who values the U.S. – Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”  Remember how Bibi lectured Obama in the Oval Office, well he’s done it again, this time to the howls of a highly partisan audience.

Like the former House Speaker, and for much deeper and personal reasons, I too count myself as a firm supporter of Israel.  Bibi may not speak for the Jews or for me, but make no mistake the survival of Israel is of key, perhaps even existential, importance to the Jewish people, regardless of their political and even religious beliefs.  For that reason alone, I opposed Netanyahu’s appearance which, in my view, in addition to all other considerations was detrimental to Israel and its cause.  I can’t think of a single foreign leader who has, his protestations today notwithstanding, so overtly aligned himself one of our political parties.  Beyond all else, this was a major breach with diplomatic norms, one that in the long run can’t possibly be good for Israel.  Injecting himself into what is already our highly polarized political scene, undermines the historic bipartisan support for Israel.  A few nice words about Obama at the outset of his talk, doesn’t mask the total repudiation of the president’s diplomacy.

Israel is concerned about a nuclear Iran, and rightly so.  But it must also stand up to the fact of its own armaments and being among the very few nations who have refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  Doesn’t that undermine the case it makes on the current negotiations?  Whether Iran, with its expressed hostility toward Israel and unquestioned aggressive role in the region, should have nuclear weapons is a legitimate question.  But the better one is whether any country including Israel and all the other nuclear powers should be so armed?  It’s a fact that nuclear weapons, by definition, make the world less safe.  The prime minister’s protestations about Iran, without even acknowledging Israel’s own stockpile, undermines his argument and, in the eyes of its critics, comes off as being a bit hypocritical.  Whether that judgment is fair is not the issue here, rather than if Bibi is asking Americans to face up to “facts”, then all facts are on the table.

Israel is a remarkable country.  It’s the only true democracy in its region — one that has orderly elections and stands by the rule of law.  Nobody is more vigilant in that regard that its own supreme court.  At the same time, Israel continues to occupy its neighbor and in so doing has alienated many of its adversaries but also its natural allies.  It is an essential Jewish state, but its policies have troubled many within the larger Jewish community and, worse, turned off many young Jews.  That isn't good for Israel nor is it for Jewish survival around the world including here in the United States.  I am old enough to remember the thrill of Israel’s birth in the aftermath of World War II.  To see its emergence was an emotional Jewish experience, in some ways solidified for us as Americans in seeing Yitzhak Rabin address a joint session of Congress in 1976.  Israeli leaders have done that eight times and in a mark of our mutual relationship more often than any other country, except the UK.  I trust that will happen again, but under very different circumstances.