January 29, 2017 § 6 Comments
Why is the United States a global superpower? There are many responses to this question, all of which have played an important part of the answer. Among these are the geographical fortune to be surrounded by oceans and non-threatening neighbors, enormous expanses of land and vast natural resources, a constitutional and democratic system of government, wise leadership, wildly talented citizens, and an unparalleled military. These and other reasons explain why American power was predominant for nearly the entire 20th century, why we emerged as the sole superpower after the Cold War, and why we remain unchallenged in our ability to project influence across the globe.
But there is one reason that stands out to me above the others, responsible not for American hard power but American influence and soft power, and it is this: America is not just a place. America is an idea. The immigrants who flocked here in droves in the 19th and 20th centuries were not doing a cost-benefit analysis of the relative strengths of the American military or land mass compared to other European countries. The billions of people around the globe today who lap up American culture do not do so because they admire the separation of powers laid out in the first three articles of the Constitution. The strength of American brands is not because McDonalds has some sort of culinary secret that eludes Chinese fast food companies. It is because people around the world have historically seen the United States not just as a place on the map, but as something bigger. The power of the American dream and the iconography of the Statue of Liberty mean something. They have value far beyond feel-good expressions of patriotism. They represent America as something for which to strive, as an expression of hopes and dreams for a better life, as a fulfillment of a quest for ultimate safety and prosperity and liberty. They represent America not just as a place for Americans, but – as Ronald Reagan so aptly put when borrowing from John Winthrop – a shining city upon a hill for the entire world. The power of the United States comes from many sources, but more than anything else it comes from the strength of the American idea.
Leave aside your politics for a moment. I don’t care whom you voted for, which party you identify with, whether you think we are stronger together or want to make America great again. If the power of America as an idea dies, American power will shortly follow. Keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism is vital, but the executive order signed by President Trump on Friday temporarily keeping citizens – including U.S. green card holders – of seven countries from entering our own, halting the admission of refugees from anywhere in the world, and shutting the door indefinitely to refugees from Syria does not do that. What it does is irreparably damage the American idea, the one that Emma Lazarus described as a world-wide welcome for those yearning to breathe free. Surely we are better than this. Surely we can agree that we face legitimate and scary threats from overseas without casting a viciously wide net. Surely we do not want to become just another country with a large economy and a powerful army. Surely we do not want to stop being Americans.
This is the challenge that we now face. I have never made any secret of how I felt about Candidate Trump, and my reservations about President Trump are even bigger. But in evaluating everything that comes over the next four years, do not lose sight for a moment of how powerful and important for all of us it is to maintain America as an idea. Doing so will be more important than the sum total of every individual policy outcome. In all instances, do your best to ensure that we continue to lift our lamp beside the golden door. Because when the idea of America is snuffed out, we forever become just another country.
January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments
The location of the American Embassy in Israel has been an issue of controversy for decades, but it is newly on the front burner. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a persistent Donald Trump campaign promise, one of its strongest advocates is ambassador-nominee David Friedman, and Israeli officials called on Trump to relocate the embassy in their messages of congratulations on his election. Like so many other variables in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this one boils down to whether you feel more strongly about principles or feel more strongly about outcomes. Unlike other areas of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, this is one where the smart solution is one against which I instinctively recoil.
The historical reason for the embassy being located in Tel Aviv is because the international community views the overall status of Jerusalem as being subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not an issue in which the U.S. is an outlier in any way – while there were a small number of primarily Latin American countries that located their embassies in Jerusalem in the past, there have been no embassies in Jerusalem for over a decade. Aside from the American position that the status of Jerusalem should not be pre-judged, there is a daily and ongoing practical reason as well for having the embassy in Tel Aviv. American regional allies are adamant that locating the embassy in Jerusalem would be a literally explosive issue, and indeed Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have on national security grounds waived the requirement in the Jerusalem Embassy Act that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. It is taken as an article of faith that moving the embassy will create protests not only in Israel but against American embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and subject American diplomats and soldiers to the threat of violence.
The argument for moving the embassy to Jerusalem relies on a basic notion of fairness. Israel defines its capital as Jerusalem, and yet it is the only country in the world whose capital – determined by its own democratically elected and sovereign government – is not accepted by the rest of the international community. Despite the fact that Jerusalem does indeed represent a complex problem whose ultimate settlement must be resolved through negotiations, this is a red herring. Israel’s capital is in West Jerusalem, the newer section of the city that was built by Jewish residents of Palestine and that was part of Israel from the very beginning. Its status is not and never has been disputed, was not and is not subject to any past or future negotiations, and is not the part of the city that is viewed by some as being more appropriately internationalized. Many Israelis and American Jews view the refusal to locate the American embassy in West Jerusalem as an unfair double standard, and believe the Palestinian and larger Arab red line over moving the embassy to be evidence that the issue is acceptance of Israel in any borders rather than a stand against Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Many people and organizations on both sides of this issue feel very strongly about it, as evidenced by the flood of statements and commentary on it since Trump’s election. Similar to the debate over the president using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” it is an example of the divide over whether powerful symbolism should take precedence over more easily measurable consequences, and as with that debate, there are legitimate arguments for both. Irrespective of where one falls out, I wish that those on opposite sides of this divide would recognize that it is not a cut and dry debate.
To keep the embassy where it is does not constitute a purely neutral move. Israelis rightly feel that it signals an unwillingness to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, the return to which was the object of centuries of Jewish longing. An American embassy in West Jerusalem does not prejudice the status of the Old City or negate the eminently reasonable desire of Palestinians to have their future capital in East Jerusalem. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv grants a hecklers’ veto to those whose real problem is with any Israeli presence in Jerusalem and who aim to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. As with the Temple Mount status quo, having the world’s diplomatic corps to Israel live and work in Tel Aviv is a very painful concession, even if it is one that is ultimately wise for security purposes.
To move the embassy is an ideological move completely devoid of any practical considerations. It doesn’t mean that it is ultimately the wrong policy to adopt, but it is highly misleading to pretend that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the clear “pro-Israel” move and that keeping it in Tel Aviv is a sign of less than full support for Israel. Moving the embassy will not necessarily result in chaos and riots in Jerusalem itself, but there is no question that it will result in chaos and riots somewhere, whether in other spots in Israel, the West Bank, Muslim-majority countries, or at American and Israeli embassies around the world. Is making a completely symbolic statement of moving the embassy worth even one American, Israeli, or Palestinian life? Is it worth even one dollar of property damage? Is it worth the PLO following through on its threat to withdraw its recognition of Israel, or halt the security cooperation that is preventing mass terrorism and rockets from the West Bank? The idea that the American embassy can be moved in a cost-free manner is laughable.
The embassy issue is hard. Do not use it as a litmus test for what is right or wrong, what is supportive of Israel or not, what should be done or should not be done. Above all, do not turn it into such a sacred cow that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv will automatically result in a 50% cut to American embassy security worldwide, as the absolutely insane bill introduced in the Senate last week will do. Policies have consequences, and moving the American embassy or keeping it where it is involves a lot more than whether diplomats will have to order new business cards. We are entering an era where every policy is in danger of being reduced to a mere rhetorical argument; do not give into that temptation with regard to this one.
January 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
There are two common responses to Elor Azaria’s manslaughter conviction by the military court today for fatally shooting an incapacitated terrorist in Hebron. One common response is that Azaria is a victim of the system; if you place 18 year old soldiers in a crucible where they must make split-second life and death decisions while facing down terrorists, you should not hold them responsible when things go wrong. Another common response is that Azaria is representative of the system; if you have militarily occupied a territory for five decades while suppressing the occupied population’s nationalist aspirations, then criminal abuses are a feature rather than a bug. There are elements of truth to both of these positions, but the obvious feature that they both share is that they fall back on “the system” to explain what has happened and to argue for their preferred outcome. The focus on the system is important, but it cannot and should not be the sum total of the story in the Azaria saga.
From one perspective, the Azaria conviction shows that the system works. When Azaria was first arrested after the shooting, there was widespread fear on the left that a whitewash would occur. Given the rush of nationalist politicians to defend his actions and visit his family to reassure them that he would not be abandoned – including Prime Minister Netanyahu, who famously called Azaria’s parents to promise them that their son would be treated fairly – the fear was not unfounded. This fear was magnified when Azaria was charged with manslaughter rather than murder despite plenty of evidence that his killing of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif was plotted as an act of revenge rather than an act of misperceived self-defense. Azaria’s lawyers mounted his defense by indicting Azaria’s commanders and the entire military apparatus as part of a conspiracy to cover up the fact that he actually acted properly, and they were bolstered by a public campaign to turn Azaria into a hero. While IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon strongly cautioned against treating Azaria as a model soldier and decried viewing him as a scapegoat or martyr, the amount of pressure going the other way was overwhelming. Nonetheless, the court today not only unanimously convicted Azaria of the manslaughter charge, but also delivered a forceful statement in spending three hours reading out the verdict and emphasizing that this was not a close or borderline case. One cannot maintain in the face of the Azaria trial that the rule of law does not exist in Israel.
From another perspective, the Azaria conviction shows just how broken the system is. Azaria was captured on tape fatally shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian terrorist fifteen minutes after he was first taken down by another soldier – about as open and shut a case with documentary evidence that exists – and yet the outcry surrounding his arrest and trial was monumental. According to the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, there have been 262 investigations of Palestinian fatalities caused by the IDF in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2000, and only 17 of those have resulted indictments. It is easy to understand why after observing the uproar surrounding this particular case. More disturbingly, that Azaria has not only been defended so vigorously in the court of public (and ministerial) opinion but has been lionized as a symbol of what is right with Israel points to dark days ahead. Demonstrators on Wednesday outside of military headquarters where the verdict was delivered chanted, “Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend,” implying that Eisenkot would be deserving of assassination should Azaria be convicted. That a soldier in an emotionally tough situation who shoots and kills an unarmed assailant is worthy of praise – not sympathy, but praise – and that his supporters view him as a paragon of virtue is bad enough. That he is a vehicle by which the IDF chief of staff and the judges who tried him are threatened with death is reprehensible and a sign that part of Israel has seriously lost its way. Judge Maya Heller, who delivered the verdict today, appears more like someone with her finger in the dike unsuccessfully trying to hold back a tidal wave of overwhelming floodwaters than like Joseph Welch shocking a country back to its senses.
What the Azaria trial says about the system, however, cannot be the last word. Making this solely a story about the success or failure of a system of Israeli policy in the West Bank or a system of Israeli rule of law is a path to disaster. There is no doubt in my mind that what Israel asks of its 18 and 19 year olds is an impossible task. There is equally no doubt in my mind that a heavy Israeli military presence in a place like Hebron – and place that must be visited in person to understand just how soul-crushing the situation there is – guarantees that even the best 18 and 19 year olds will act in reprehensible ways. Neither of these observations should be used to absolve anyone of individual responsibility for his or her actions. Once you take this tack, then chaos and anarchy reign supreme. If every soldier who encounters a violent Palestinian knows that he can wrongfully shoot and claim being a victim of “the system,” it will unleash unspeakable violence while also rending Israeli society in two to an irreparable degree. If every incident of wrongful killing or abuse of Palestinians in the West Bank is met with a larger demand to investigate why Israel is in the West Bank at all, it will similarly create an environment in which there is no incentive for individuals to act with caution or compassion.
This is why the effort already underway to pardon Azaria, championed not only by the prime minister and other government ministers such as Naftali Bennett, Miri Regev, Aryeh Deri, and Yisrael Katz, but also by opposition figures such as Shelley Yachimovich, is a dangerous development. It sends the wrong message about the obligations of soldiers to act legally and humanely and creates a terrible set of incentives through institutionalizing moral hazard. It also validates those who have been treating Azaria as a soldier who acted appropriately but has been scapegoated by the system, while tarnishing the part of the system – the rule of law – that actually worked and has come out of this incident unscathed. But more importantly, it makes this all about the system itself. Do not discount what Elor Azaria did himself, no matter how bad or unfair the situation was in which he found himself. It turns Elor Azaria into a black and white proxy for whether Israel can do no right or Israel can do no wrong, when the reality is far grayer.