Friday, January 30, 2015

Time for an old joke to explain what’s going on.

First, the joke:
“Zeyde! Zayde! Babe Ruth just hit his 6o home runs.”
“Nu? Is this good or bad for the Jews?
So, let’s take a look at where we are. Things are very nasty between the Democrats, who control the White House, and the Republicans, who control the Congress. As with any grievance, the decisive factor will be this: Who frames the narrative? Each side has a tale to tell in Washington, D.C. Call it “A City of Two Tales.” As usual, each grievant tells a tale in which he plays the role of victim in the opening salvo.

Republicans claim that the President started it all when he took unilateral actions regarding immigration. It’s hard to take this seriously, but at the time, Boehner talked about “poisoning the well,” or “playing with matches.”

They also claim that the President threw down a gauntlet at the State of the Union address when he said that he would veto any bill that would result in a break-down of negotiations with Iran, such as the conditional sanctions bill in the Senate now. These Republicans didn’t pay attention to the fact that the President also said that if negotiations break down, we will have to go to war.  

Some Democrats, including Jews join these Republicans, because they are disappointed with the progress of negotiations with Iran. Some find the demands of Israel to be unrealistic. Iran will not dismantle anything that can be used for a nuclear weapon program, especially since, as signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to develop a civilian nuclear program.

In the Democratic narrative, the story starts with Boehner’s invitation to Bibi and the attendant breach of protocol. Not to mention law: The Logan Act (1 Stat. 613, 30 January 1799, currently codified at 18 U.S.C. § 953) is a United States federal law that forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. It was passed in 1799 and last amended in 1994. Violation of the Logan Act is a felony, punishable under federal law with imprisonment of up to three years. Some say that Boehner does not have the authority to invite any foreign leader to Congress and that only the POTUS or his designated official can.

The Democratic view is that Mr. Obama is the duly elected mouth-piece for foreign policy, especially if the message is one everybody absolutely agrees upon. Everybody absolutely agrees on this message: The alliance between the United States and Israel is ironclad, inviolable, and sacrosanct. Everyone also agrees that Iran absolutely cannot be permitted to become a nuclear military power.

We should be saying these things with a united voice. Choose your patter: “We are not a red country or a blue country,” or “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” Some Republicans are attracted to this message just out of respect for the office of President. Some Democrats, inclined to take Bibi’s side, are pulled back onto the reservation just out of loyalty to the occupant of the office of the President. So battle lines in this dispute are not completely congruent with party lines.

Nu? Is this good or bad for the Jews?

Funny you should ask. As it turns out, some Jews are Republicans, and they think the President can’t be trusted with negotiating an existential threat. They can say, with some validity, that they are standing with the duly elected PM of Israel, so who can complain? 

President Obama's supporters say, we are willing to threaten war against Iran if they don’t figure out a way to live without a nuclear bomb, but we draw the line at Bibi interjecting himself in partisan domestic politics. And further, international norms of behavior look upon interfering with another country's election. Inded, Obama used this as justification for announcing that he would not meet with Bibi when he was in Washington.

Should Bibi be taking a side in the debate that we are having in the U.S. between two political parties on the issue of how to conduct foreign policy?

Bibi says, “It’s my job. I will go anywhere, anytime I feel I can influence the debate in favor of not making a deal with Iran, unless it is an acceptable deal to Israel. After all, the bomb is intended for us!” I’ll give him that. But he doesn’t have to give the President a gratuitous dose of disrespect. Message to Bibi: Put your personal animosity for our President aside. There are some things that are more important than you getting re-elected. And, by the way, being rude to the POTUS might not help your chances of getting re-elected anyway. Right now, you're no better than a coin-toss.

The real debate should be about what will be most effective in preventing Iran from getting nukes. The President is entrusted with foreign policy, and, so far so good. Are we okay with Syria not having chemical weapons? Thank you, Mr. President. But, remember: that outcome required cooperation from Iran.

Basically, the way I see it is we need an adult to negotiate with Iran, and the Congressional foreign policy caucus is not that adult. They have proved this with the impudent, childish way Bibi’s visit came about.

The difference in the approach is that one side wants to negotiate until failure is clearly the fault of the Iranians, and then go to war. Good faith requires that the negotiation be conducted with the belief that it is possible and reasonable to come to a peaceful solution. But realism requires that you acknowledge that “the biggest long-shot Louie at Hialeah wouldn’t put a fin on the fate” of a nuke deal with Iran.

I heard an AIPAC guy say that “Obama believes that he should appeal to the Iranian’s better nature.” That’s not what Obama believes at all. If war comes, America will want the right to say, “We tried diplomacy.” That’s important, because we will need allies if we go to war with Iran, and, they will need to hear that. And, there’s no way a war plan can get the requisite support from the American people, if they don’t hear that every alternative was exhausted first.

Team Boeher, as well as Bibi, say, “enough already with the diplomacy,already” and “It’s time for the U.S, to be strong.” They should recall that for America to flex military muscles she must have the support of a war-weary public, and this is so much harder to do because the previous President was a little too promiscuous with his use of force. The result is great instability in the mid-East, and that can’t be good for the Jews.

Even if the U.S. did resolve to torpedo the negotiations and use force, consider for a moment some of the problems that would involve. You’ve got the rise of ISIL, which directly challenges the Jordanian regime, the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah in Lebanon, instability is Afghanistan, regime change in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and Hamas in the Gaza. It’s hard to see how military action could be confined to stopping Iranian centrifuges. 

Maybe Republicans are right to believe that war is inevitable and to say, “If not now, when? When will Iran be more vulnerable?” I trust the President to arrive at good answers to these questions, and I don’t trust the Congress, especially in the run-up to the 2016 silly season.

Two out of three Jews voted for the President, most of them twice. Jews are a core constituency of his party. Significantly, the pro-Israel Evangelicals are a core constituency of the Republican Party. The two constituencies are at odds with each other in this matter, even though each sees itself as staunchly pro-Israel.I blame Boehner and Bibi for aggravating the rift and, no, it's not good for the Jews.

AIPAC and Likud side with the CUFI Republicans. J Street and most Jews, especially liberal ones, side with the President and the constitution. In a rather unpleasant moment, left-leaning MS-NBC host Ed Shultz called Netanyahu a “war-monger,” a term that is usually reserved for American neo-cons. It made me decidedly uncomfortable and I wondered if what I was feeling was a visceral reflex to come to the defense of a fellow Jew being attacked by a gentile. Now, to be sure, Ed Shultz is no anti-Semite. But was he aware of how the choice of words sounded like age-old anti-Semitism? (And how did the Rothschilds make their money?)

But then I reminded myself that Netanyahu is not the State of Israel. In fact, he might not even be the PM of Israel in 6 weeks. Still, whoever is responsible for lefties publicly rebuking the PM has not served Israel well. Some of the blame goes to Bibi himself, but Boehner is clearly responsible. It is understandable that when the Speaker of the House, and Bibi conspire to disrespect the President, someone might just conclude that, to borrow a phrase, there will be a price to be paid. Already, we have seen very sharp criticism from the White House directed at the Israeli ambassador, accusing him of putting Bibi's interests ahead of Israel's.

Boehner wanted to appeal to his base, especially the growing number of pro-Israel evangelicals, who share Boehner’s view on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Christians United For Israel (CUFI) is an organization emblematic of this constituency. Boehner figured that he could dis the prez, boost his pro-Israel bona fides, and side with Israel in a spat between Israel and the United States. What could go wrong?

What went wrong is that Jews and most Americans don’t want to see our President dissed, don’t appreciate Boehner playing nuclear roulette to help Republicans polish their anti-Obama cred, and don’t particularly like to see a spat between Israel and the U.S. especially one that is aired in public.
So, nu? Is that good or bad for the Jews?

It’s not good. But it’s what will happen inevitably if you put CUFI  ahead of Jews. Eventually, their hatred of the President will trump their love of Israel. Their love of Israel exceeds their love of Jews, and that's why I can't trust it. And that’s why I condemn Boehner and Bibi. They put the first crack in the non-partisan wall of American support for Israel, by playing politics with the special relationship. And it didn’t work.

The timing is right for Obama to make a bold move in the Middle East if he wants this to be part of his legacy. Actually, he has no choice in the matter: He must make a bold move. The situation in the mid-East demands it. He knows that an atavistic, Iranian apocalyptic theocracy with hegemony over so much of the world’s oil reserves, extraterrestial ambitions, and a nuclear bomb just won’t fly. 

But what else can be rolled into the deal? Obviously, the Iranians want relief from sanctions, but what else? U.S. to step up against ISIS? Assad to be gone in Syria? Progress in Israel-Palestinian conflict?
What even constitutes progress? 

The U.S. and Israel are both officially committed to a two-state solution, but how committed are they? And can Obama ever really believe that he can get from here to there in two years or should he simply accept that it is hopeless. Ought he to be guided by the words of Pirke Avot: “Yours is not to finish the work, but neither are you free to walk away from it.” For now, I am gratified by the fact that he is not pressuring the Israelis to make a bad deal with Palestinians.

At present, the important thing to do is to repair the Israeli-American relationship. That has to start with Bibi figuring out a way to back out of his date with Congress. He may also have to recall Ambassador Ron Dermer, who is credited with having the horrible idea of having Bibi go over the head of the President to speak to Congress.

If not, I fear that the U.S. will declare Dermer persona non grata. Would this be good or bad for the Jews? It might seem good to you especially if you are the kind who believes that Republicans are better for the State of Israel than Democrats, and that Republicans can frame this as the President snubbing our most important ally. Further, you must believe that expelling the ambassador will bolster Bibi’s election prospects, and that Bibi is good for Israel. I am doubtful of each of these propositions. On this last point -- is Bibi good for Israel? -- a majority of Israelis seem to think not, but we will know for sure on St. Patrick’s day, when Israeli elections are scheduled. 

What seems incontrovertible is that the relationship between Israel and the U.S., and especially between Bibi and Obama, is at a low point. I condemn Boehner for aggravating the situation, especially since it was not merely a miscalculation. It was a conscious decision to insult the President. 

The most generous thing I can say about Bibi is that he was sucked into this, though obviously, he was not dragged kicking and screaming. If AIPAC takes up with Boehner and Bibi, they are siding with the ones who thought that it was okay to play politics with the special relationship. It's not even nearly okay.

And they owe us an apology.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Twenty years ago, there was a massacre of Jews in Argentina.

Twenty years ago, there was a massacre of Jews in Argentina.
A bombing of Argentina's largest Jewish center killed 85 people and injured more than 200. The identity of the terrorists has not been established. Recently, however, there have been allegations that the government of President Kirchner of Argentina may have reached a deal with the Iranian sponsors of this attack.
Testimony was expected in the Argentine Congress on January 18th, regarding the claim that President Kirchner had secretly reached a deal with Iran to shield officials wanted in connection with the biggest terrorist attack in the country's history. The testimony never came because the witness, a prosecutor named Alberto Misman, himself a Jew, was found dead in his bathroom with a .22 pistol by his side just hours before he was to testify.
At first, the President’s response was to suggest it was a suicide. Lately, it is acknowledged that Misman was murdered. This is awkward because the President is the obvious answer to the question, “who benefits?” Kirchner has tried to suggest that the Iranians did it. The issue threatens to disrupt the remainder of the President’s term as well the subsequent future of Argentina.
Here's what Big Mitch knows:86 Jews were killed, and hundreds were injured. Their lives were snuffed out because they were Jews. And it was to further someone’s political agenda. Ad mosai?*
If either President Kirchner or her accuser is telling the truth, Iran is right in the middle of it. So, if Bibi goes a little meshugah about the Iranians getting a bomb, forgive him.
He really doesn’t want to alienate the President of the United States, or the 2/3 of American Jews who voted for him. Nor did he think America’s special relationship with Israel should be a matter of partisan politics. Besides, Bibi is smart and one thing he has to figure is that Obama is going to be president for 2 more years. Sure, it’s a little early to call the 2016 election, but if you have to place your bets today, Hillary Clinton is the early favorite. Do you think Bibi wants to be a tool of a permanent minority party in the U.S.? Forgive him already. What do you always say? “Forgive he because he knows not what he is doing?”
Iran is the threat we need to focus on. And in case of Iran, let’s not forget what the President said in the State of the Union Address. If negotiations break down, we are going to war. So, Bibi, relax. America’s got your six. Always will. Maybe you’re working too hard. Cancel some speaking engagements.
"...and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!"

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Iranian Nuclear Threat: What to do

It has been an interesting week for U.S. Israel relations. As is well known, both the U.S. and Israel are extremely concerned about the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. The issue is how to stop the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear bomb, and on this issue, the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate don’t see eye-to-eye. 

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said: 

"New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”

Indeed, the Senate is not of one mind, as differing bills work their way through the legislative process. Here  is a good review of the bidding.

Moreover, Israel does not adhere to only one view of the matter. Prime Minister Netanyahu favors a bill that would impose conditional sanctions on Iran, but at a press conference with European Union foreign policy chief  Federica Mogherini, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that 

“In Israel, one of the top intelligence –- one of the top intelligence personnel within the Israeli intelligence field –- I won’t name names, but this person was asked directly by a congressional delegation that visited there over the weekend what the effect of sanctions would be. And this person answered that it would be like throwing a grenade into the process”

Perhaps LIndsey Graham heard this Mossad official, because on Meet the Press, Graham said that he would be willing to forego a provisional sanctions bill if the President would submit any agreement with the Iranians to the Senate for ratification. 

This is an idea that, to borrow a phrase from Wolfgang Pauli, is "not even wrong." Any resolution of the problem will require many interim agreements, and submitting each one to the Senate would make progress impossible. This is especially true when one considers that the partisans in the Senate would never aprove of anything that the President negotiated, because they are dedicated to making sure that he fails at everything, regardless of the cost to the country.

To round out this catalogue of difficulties, Speaker of the House John Boehner has invited the Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to address Congress in early March. In a rude breach of protocol the Speaker did not even notify the White House. It has been theorized that this is pay-back for the President acting unilaterally on immigration. If so, it is beyond ironic that the acolytes of Ronald Reagan forget his admonition that “Politics ends at the water’s edge.” (1)

If you want to see the extreme of using Iran to bash the President in a disgusting appeal to the religious right, I give you Ted Cruz. 

Bibi will be standing for early elections on March 17, and he will be speaking to Congress in early March. There is a longstanding norm of international politics that disapproves of any action that smacks of involving one country in the internal politics of another. Although Bibi is arguably guilty of breaching this norm in November of 2012, the White House referred to it in explaining why neither the President nor John Kerry would be meeting with him in advance of the Israeli election.

So, now might be a good time to re-read what I wrote in February of last year, "AIPAC reconsidered."

Of course, today it is difficult to be as sanguine as I was about the Arab Spring when I wrote that. However, I still think that things are a lot better now than they were six years ago. ISIL is a source of great concern but I have it on reliable information that no less an expert than  General Anthony Zinni.opines that the U.S. could defeat this rag-tag non-professional gang of 30,000 fighters in about 2 weeks, if we could only summons the political will to do so. Problem is we can't and therefore, Syria remains an impossible situation, perhaps, because people did not heed the advice I gave here.  

So, there are two questions:

First, where is AIPAC going to come out on the sanctions bill? Will they see the wisdom of the President’s approach, as they did last go-round, or will they defer to Bibi Netanyahu, thereby bolstering him in his election campaign?

Second, what does Big Mitch think we should do?
Regarding the first we can only wait and see. 

As to the second question, I think it is obvious that the U.S. needs to speak with one voice, and that it should be the voice of a grown-up. Sadly, the only one who seems to fit that description is the President of the United States. 

Wish him luck, and, 

“… tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

(1)  It was actually Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg who first uttered these words in 1947. Most of the Gipper's best lines were written by someone else. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Je suis Juif.

While watching the famous liberal media on TV, I saw Ron Allen, a reporter in Paris, talking about the number of Jews leaving France because of the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe in general, and in France in particular. The problem is real and substantial. Then, he used an expression that jangled my ears.  He said that more and more Jews are “going back to Israel.” 

The choice of words rankled because the Jews of France are generally not part of an immigrant community. Jews have lived in the south of France since at least the first century, brought by the Romans as slaves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, the preeminent commentator on the Jewish Bible and the Oral Law, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known generally as Rashi, was born in Troyes, France in the year 1040.

Jews prospered after the French Revolution, which gave them truly equal citizenship for the first time anywhere in Europe. Their emancipation in 1791 was the signal for ghettos to crumble all over the Continent. This is what French Prime Minister  Manuel Valls referred to when he said, To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews, and, if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.

The endless list of famous French Jews includes two prime ministers, a Secretary of State, and literary giants such as Marcel Proust. Marc Chagall, the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century,” made his home in Paris, having emigrated there as a young man before the first World War.

At least a quarter of the 330,000 Jews in pre-war France were murdered by the Nazi and their sympathizers. After the war, many Jews immigrated to France from Eastern Europe. These Jews were joined in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s by large numbers of Jews from France's predominantly Muslim North African colonies as part of the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. The Jewish community is strong in France, and Jews are integrated into all levels of society. Negative attitudes towards Jews in France are less common than in other European countries. One of the victims in the Charlie Habdo was a much-beloved Jewish cartoonist.

And then, it occurred to me. Jews in France are, literally, exiles from the Holy Land, as am I. The Hebrew word for exile is galus. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Jewish nation was driven out of its homeland and sent off into a tear-soaked galus that lasts to this very day. We wait and yearn for the day when our galus and suffering will come to an end, when we will be returned to the Holy Land, with the coming of our redeemer, the Moshiach (Messiah) may it be speedily and in our times.