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!”

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