July 28, 2016 § 2 Comments
I have been unsparing in my criticism of Republican positions on Israel this campaign season, and particularly those held by the (no longer presumptive) nominee and his team of one-staters. I make no secret of the fact that I see Donald Trump’s views on Israel as incoherent at best and a dumpster fire at worst, and the fact that Republicans have, despite some laudable exceptions, quietly acceded to Trump upending years of established Republican – and largely bipartisan – policy on Israel is not their finest moment. If Trump loses, one of the most entertaining sideshows of the next few years will be watching his currently eager but future shamefaced supporters walking back not only their laudatory expressions of support for him personally but the absurd positions they embraced on his behalf, and hopefully the more-hawkish-than-Bibi position will fall under this umbrella. The Republicans have the problem that they are becoming comfortable with positions on Israel that are absurdly unrealistic and will damage Israel in the long run, but events at the Democratic convention are demonstrating that the Republicans are not alone. If the Republicans are hurting Israel by emboldening its most extreme instincts, the Democrats are doing so by giving those who possess the extreme instincts legitimate cause for concern.
On Monday, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the convention, Representative Hank Johnson stridently criticized Israeli settlement activity. The problem is that in doing so, he referred to Israeli settlers as termites; made the blanket assertion that Israelis are not building their own neighborhoods but that, in his words, “you see one home after another being appropriated by Jewish people who come in to claim that land just because somebody did not spend the night there;” and falsely charged that Israel has banned Palestinians from displaying the Palestinian flag. I understand why Johnson is upset at Israeli policies in the West Bank, and I share his frustration. What I don’t share is his view that it is appropriate to compare Israelis to vermin or to just make stuff up in order to paint a bad situation with an even darker brush. On Monday afternoon, Johnson tweeted an apology for his “poor choice of words,” referring to comparing Israelis to termites, but that actually misses the point. It is the exaggerated charges that are the truly damaging aspects of what Johnson said. Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton and Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders dislike Israel’s settlement policy, and it is reasonable to expect Democratic politicians to criticize it given their voters’ preferences. But whipping people up into an ignorant frenzy by insinuating that the bulk of settlement activity consists of Israelis lurking in the weeds, just waiting for Palestinians to spend a night out of town and then taking over their houses, is grossly irresponsible. Israel’s settlement policy – which, yes, sometimes involves building on privately owned Palestinian land – is bad enough on its own that it doesn’t need to be embellished, and it is this type of rhetoric that gives cover to the farthest right of Israel’s rightwing by allowing them to claim that criticism of Israel is little more than lies and hate.
Yet more extreme behavior was on display Tuesday outside of the convention hall, as a rowdy group of louts burned an Israeli flag and chanted “long live the intifada,” no doubt demonstrating their desire for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their commitment to two states for two peoples. Now, this is not activity sanctioned by the Democratic Party and so to blame it on national Democrats is simply unfair; in fact, the flag burners appear to have been part of a larger group protesting Democratic policy more widely. But just as there is something about Trump that draws white supremacists to him like moths to a flame, the fact that those on the left advocating for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews think that they will manage to get a sympathetic hearing from people attending the convention in Philadelphia says something. These kinds of views must be unequivocally denounced, and putting Cornel West – who has accused Bibi Netanyahu of war crimes and talks about “the role of money and lobbies” when discussing Israel policy – on the Democratic platform committee sends a message of a different type.
I do not mean to suggest an absolute equivalence here where both sides are suffering on the same level. On the Republican side, we are dealing with a nominee and a platform whose Israel policy is off the rails, while on the Democratic side we are dealing with a misinformed backbench congressman and some unwashed protestors who are left with burning flags on the wrong side of the convention’s security fence. One party has abandoned the bipartisan consensus on two states while one is still holding the line. That doesn’t change the fact that there is a worrisome undercurrent in the Democratic Party that views Israel as disproportionately bad, and it should and must be called out. Comments like Johnson’s or moves to welcome the BDS movement under the Democratic big tent are wrong on their own, but they are also ultimately damaging by reinforcing the narrative on the right that nothing Israel does will ever be enough, and so better to just damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. It is easy to see how Republican policies are driving Israel away from two states. The fact that it is harder to see how some movements within the Democratic Party are accomplishing the same doesn’t mean that it is less worthy of opprobrium.
July 14, 2016 § 5 Comments
There is a quip that a camel is a horse designed by committee, a witticism that never seemed truer than it did this week. In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Republican Party Platform Committee introduced a new plank on Israel that dropped all references to the two-state solution – references that had been included in every Republican Party platform since 2004 – and made clear that it is taking its cues from Donald Trump. Much like other Trumpian policy positions and pearls of wisdom that emanate from the candidate and his advisers, this one is destined to wither on the vine. But let’s not allow the moment to pass without fully acknowledging its myopic foolishness and what it says about how out of touch with reality the GOP platform delegates are.
The 2012 Republican platform was unequivocal in its support for Israel and its security, and in its appreciation of the shared values between Israel and the U.S. And yet, somehow it did not see the following lines as contradictory to any of that: “We support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state with secure, defensible borders; and we envision two democratic states – Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine – living in peace and security…. The U.S. seeks a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, negotiated between the parties themselves with the assistance of the U.S., without the imposition of an artificial timetable.” Republican support for two states was not an accident, and in fact the first president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state was George W. Bush. Republicans have long understood that the two-state solution is the only secure long-term path for Israel, which is why they have embraced it despite serious and valid reservations over whether an independent Palestine will be a viable or peaceful Israeli neighbor. The excising of all mentions of two states is not neutral or innocuous; it is a purposeful reversal of policy, no matter how advocates for the new platform position attempt to spin the development. Removing long-standing language is an active statement, and by cheerleading this process along, Trump and his henchmen are putting the GOP in conflict not only with American policy, but with Israeli policy as well.
In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.” In November 2015, he said, ““I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.” It is one thing to debate over how best to get to two states, whether it is feasible at the moment, what conditions must be in force in order for a Palestinian state to become a reality, and what the timetable should be. It is quite another not to endorse two states in any guise and to tacitly promote a one-state catastrophe. Netanyahu falls under the first category, and the Republican platform now falls under the second. Make no mistake – there is no world in which this can be considered a rational pro-Israel position.
Let’s start with what should be obvious: one state means the end of Israel as both Jewish and democratic. That David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s two Israel advisers, both of whom work as corporate lawyers and whose expertise in Israel policy seems to extend as far but no farther than the fact that they are Jewish and have spent time in Israel – are reduced to peddling mythical statistics in service of denying this simple truth only demonstrates the delusion at work here. The entire fight against the BDS movement is predicated on the very idea that one state means the end of Israel as we know it, so that the Republican platform can in one breath denounce BDS for seeking to destroy Israel and then with the next encourage a one-state policy is a truly acrobatic feat of cognitive dissonance. And is there even a need anymore to tackle the chimera of the “sustainable status quo,” a concept that Netanyahu has rebuffed both publicly and privately and one against which the near entirety of Israel’s security establishment has revolted? Smart Republican Israel hands such as Elliott Abrams understand the importance of preserving the two-state solution, and yet the Trumpkins have managed to drown out decades of GOP expertise and experience by employing their common follow-the-leader tactic of acting upon whatever half-baked thought pops into their heads.
But let’s set all of this aside. Let’s assume that the experts are all wrong, and that either the status quo can continue forever or that Israel can annex the West Bank with no devastating adverse consequences. Isn’t there a constant refrain from the pro-Israel community about not imposing outside solutions on Israel and yielding to Israelis to determine their own destiny? I do not say this sarcastically; I am in full agreement and very much on the record as believing that Americans can and should express their preferences to Israel, come up with helpful suggestions, and make their best arguments as to why they should be implemented, but ultimately it is up to Israelis to elect their leaders and for the government of Israel to set its own policies. Yet in this instance, the government of Israel has stated its policy preference for a two-state solution and has been clear that a one-state outcome must be avoided at all costs, and the Republican platform has actively decided to contravene that policy. Not only that, it has actively decided to contravene it out of a desire to establish “a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel,” apparently ignorant of the fact that this does the precise opposite. It is unclear to me why hawkish policies that seek to impose unwanted solutions on Israel should be viewed any differently than dovish ones.
Ultimately, platform committees don’t matter in the real world, as much as the delegates desperately want to believe that their hard work is making a difference. I’ll bet that all nominees would fail a well-constructed multiple choice test on their parties’ platform language, and I can guarantee that no president has ever made a decision in office based on what the party platform encouraged or dismissed. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to see the base of the Republican Party be led so far aground by a bloviating, ignorant clodpate and his merry band of troglodytes. Consider Greenblatt’s comments to the Jewish Week: ““My view is that we should look at a single-state solution — and any other options on the table. Don’t take two states as a given; it is quite old. Maybe the Palestinians — after having suffered through the leadership they have had and seeing Israeli Palestinians who live a safe and free life — would also like it.” Not only is this a guy who has clearly never spoken with a Palestinian – and possibly never spoken with an Israeli who doesn’t vote for Habayit Hayehudi – the shallow fatuousness of the analysis beggars belief. Yes, there are indeed Palestinians who would like to see a one-state solution, but they are not the fellow travelers of Greenblatt’s fever dream hallucination. There is a reason that even Netanyahu, who clearly does not relish the prospect of relinquishing the West Bank to say the least, has reluctantly come around to the view that it will ultimately have to be done. There is a reason that two states has become the widespread consensus position, both in Israel and the U.S.
On second thought, perhaps the fact that Trump’s team is driving the GOP into the wilderness on Israel is a good thing. I can think of no better way for the one-state delusion to be discredited for good than for Trump and his coterie of Chelm court jesters to embrace it.
June 23, 2016 § 4 Comments
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has seen the culmination of a trend that has been building in American politics for some time, namely the distrust of the establishment and the glorification of the outsider. The Iraq War and the Great Recession were probably the most significant contributors to the growing idea that the old order couldn’t be trusted, that the historically bipartisan establishment consensus on foreign and economic policy was failing regular citizens, and that only by “throwing the bums out” could the ship of state be righted. The election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party were manifestations of this political movement. Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in this year’s Democratic primary and the nomination of Donald Trump on the Republican side have only magnified it. The U.S., however, is not the only country where this has taken place, and in many ways Israeli politics is giving us a glimpse of what happens when the outsiders become the insiders and the old establishment begins to plot its comeback.
Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister with the Likud victory in 1977 was earth shattering. It marked the first time that the Israeli rightwing defeated the leftwing Mapai and its political heirs and was the first rejection of the secular Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state and governed it since its inception. The Israeli rightwing – which includes secular Ashkenazi Jews but also is viewed as representing Mizrahim, Haredim, national religious, immigrants, and others in a way that the left traditionally has not – has been in power with only two brief interludes since Begin’s first victory. In spite of this history, the prime ministership of Binyamin Netanyahu has in many ways embraced this outsider ethos rather than acting as the latest iteration of a political movement that thoroughly controls the state. Despite hailing from a well-known family with deep Zionist roots, Netanyahu seems to have a chip on his shoulder against Israeli establishment elites. He surrounds himself – to his credit – with relative newcomers to the state, whether it be close advisers like Ron Dermer and Dore Gold or political allies like Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein. Ministers in his cabinet, like Moshe Kahlon or Miri Regev, speak out against the old establishment and work to upend the old order in various ways. Netanyahu, like many politicians who successfully capitalize on voters’ resentment, never hesitates to appeal to nationalism that denigrates leftists, the “State of Tel Aviv,” or other symbols of the traditional establishment. Despite being a three term prime minister who has served more time in the post than anyone other than David Ben Gurion and heads a political camp that has dominated Israeli politics for four decades, Netanyahu in many ways gives off the vibe of being an upstart outsider.
The conflict between Netanyahu and various political and military figures that is now playing out – intensified by Moshe Ya’alon’s and Ehud Barak’s speeches at the IDC Herzliya conference last week – can be viewed in a number of ways. On the one hand, there is the never-ending battle taking place between Likud and the parties to its left looking to displace it. Netanyahu still maintains the overwhelming upper hand over the conflict and angst-ridden Labor party, but the political rival who presents the most obvious clear and present danger is Yair Lapid, who in the latest poll is running only two seats behind Netanyahu and Likud. This is a battle not between right and left, but between right and center, and there is no doubt that Lapid is gunning hard to become the next prime minister and taking positions that will still appeal to nationalists while distinguishing him from Netanyahu.
Another way to view the current contretemps is politicians vs. the military. Israel’s current political leadership is very much at odds with the military leadership and security establishment over all sorts of issues, from what steps to take in the West Bank to how to address the controversy surrounding Elor Azaria (the soldier on trial for shooting and killing an immobile Palestinian terrorist in Hebron). There is no question that some in the government see benefit to using the IDF as a punching bag, and that some in the IDF see benefit in discrediting the government, and politicians on all sides of the issue are eager to line up behind one side or another based on the politics irrespective of the actual issues at hand.
But there is another way to look at the sudden cavalcade of politicians and former generals aligning themselves against Netanyahu, and it is the frame of the traditional establishment reasserting itself. Barak and Ya’alon are both former defense ministers and former IDF chiefs of staff, but that is where the comparison ends. They differ in their politics, in their styles, and in their worldviews, but the common thread uniting them aside from their military backgrounds is the charge that Netanyahu is changing the fabric of the country by pitting different groups against each other and damaging Israel’s democracy. The same goes for establishment Likud princes, such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who have fallen out with Netanyahu over similar issues rather than over issues of left vs. right. Much like the Bush family here – the ultimate symbol of the American establishment – who seem to abhor Trump not so much for his specific positions but for the threat he represents to the fabric of a harmonious American society and democracy, the various people and forces now lining up against Netanyahu across the spectrum represent the old Israeli establishment consensus despite having diverse political views. Netanyahu, who has done a masterful job of sidelining and diminishing his adversaries over the course of his political career, finally seems to have provoked a widespread backlash not because of any one policy per se, but because the people who view themselves as guardians of the Israeli ethos – and after all, what is an establishment for if not for that? – see his continued tenure as a threat to some definition of what it means to be Israeli and what Israel should stand for. I do not mean to abandon my cynical self here; very clearly much of this is political opportunism and some long-time Netanyahu rivals seeing the chance to finally draw some blood. But looking at how Israeli politics seems to be realigning itself along establishment/non-establishment fault lines may give us a glimpse of what the post-Trump future will look like here as well.
May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments
Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) is always a good time to celebrate Israel’s accomplishments, which are numerous. One of the most important of those accomplishments is independence itself. I do not mean independence in the obvious sense of having an independent state, but in the sense of not being influenced or controlled by anyone else. Israelis – and Israel – famously go their own way, and this is often reflected in Israeli policy. Whether it was ultimately counterproductive or not, Israel fought tooth and nail against the Iran deal despite the views of its Western allies and well beyond the point when it was clear that the deal was a fait accompli. Israel has not hesitated to act in its own best interest in the face of global opposition, such as with the strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 or the development of its own nuclear program. It is difficult to look at Israeli security or domestic policy and view it as being influenced or controlled by other states or world opinion, both for the good and the bad.
Of course, Independence Day is also a good time to reflect on the ways in which Israel’s survival is guaranteed precisely because of its relationships with others, since no country – including global superpowers – can ever truly survive by going it alone. The most important of these is of course the relationship with the United States, and it too is something to be celebrated as an accomplishment. The U.S. has seen Israel through different prisms over nearly seven decades, from Harry Truman’s sense of supporting Israel as biblically mandated to Richard Nixon’s view of Israel as a bulwark against Communism in the Middle East to Bill Clinton’s deep affinity for and identification with Israeli values and spirit. That Israel has through all of this maintained and institutionalized the connection to the U.S. across all levels of government, fostered bonds between American and Israeli society, intertwined the American and Israeli economies, and built a relationship with the U.S. that has withstood many trials and bumps and remained not only resilient but one of the strongest bilateral partnerships that exists is remarkable (and if you think this all exists solely because of a shadowy and nefarious lobbying campaign, you have some serious blind spots, to put it charitably).
One of the hallmarks of this relationship is currently in danger, and it is the annual military assistance that the U.S. provides to Israel. The current aid package is a ten year agreement that was signed in August 2007 and provides $3 billion per year, which is about 20% of Israel’s annual defense spending. While some, including Naftali Bennett and Elliott Abrams, have cogently argued that it would be best for Israel if military aid was to be reduced or even eliminated entirely, needless to say the defense assistance is currently a vital component of Israel’s security and contingency planning, and ensures Israel’s military primacy in the Middle East. Aside from shoring up the U.S.’s key military ally in the world’s most turbulent region, another benefit to the U.S. from this aid package is that the bulk of the funds are spent at home, providing an important stimulus to the American economy. As the current MOU is about to expire, the U.S. and Israel have been negotiating the next one and have run into a number of snags. While the two sides appear to be apart over the issue of the overall number – Israel was initially seeking as much as $4.5 billion annually and the U.S. is reportedly holding the line at $3.7 billion – the actual hang-up is in the details. The current MOU allows Israel to spend 26.3% of the funds on Israeli-made equipment rather than spending the entirety in the U.S., which is not a component of U.S. military assistance to any other country, and it also allows Israel to spend $400 million per year on gasoline. Reuters reported last week that the U.S. wants to eliminate both of these clauses going forward, and Israel so far has been reluctant to agree to these terms, arguing that to remove the nearly $800 million that is spent annually on the Israeli defense industry will fatally cripple it.
I have already made apparent my view that refusing to negotiate on the military aid package during the Iran deal debate, when Israel still had some leverage, was an epic strategic blunder on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s part, so there is no need to rehash the point. What is taking place now is also a bad misreading of the political environment, and Israel is again making a critical mistake. The reason for the 26.3% carve out in the last MOU was to give the Israeli defense industry a boost, as Israel has always viewed a strong homegrown defense technology and manufacturing sector as critical to Israeli security. The boost worked well; so well, in fact, that U.S. arms manufacturers are now competing with Israeli ones in the market for advanced weapons, particularly when it comes to drones and other aerial technology. It is now an election year in the U.S., at a time when people are worried about the uneven economic recovery and particularly about manufacturing jobs. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have both injected an enormous dose of economic populism into the national conversation, not to mention Trump’s ugly “America First” nationalism. Israel is already requesting a substantial increase in military assistance at a time when budget sequestration is still in effect in the U.S. and its own defense spending is being cut back. This seems like a particularly bad time to make a stand against American negotiators and members of Congress over an issue that will affect U.S. jobs, especially when it involves an industry where Israeli companies and American companies are directly competing. Imagine trying to convince a Republican congressman in Texas or South Carolina or Georgia that it is more important to maintain the 26.3% exception than it is to save jobs in his or her district, and you’ll see the limits of pro-Israel advocacy firsthand. This is also not an issue that will go away once the White House changes hands, as the fundamental disagreement here is not going to evaporate. It is entirely appropriate for Israel to make the case for higher levels of aid given the changed strategic regional environment it faces since the last agreement was negotiated, and this is particularly true when it comes to missile defense. The 26.3% carve out is, however, not quite as defensible, and Israel should not view it as a core benefit that is being taken away but as an added bonus that it enjoyed during a different economic era.
Israel’s security is not an issue that can be compromised. Were I advising the Israeli government, I would urge it to smile and say thank you to the American government for the generous and unprecedented offer on the table, and to find other ways to prop up Israeli defense firms. Whatever the final package turns out to be, make sure that it lives up to Israel’s security needs, and don’t spurn an offer hoping that a better one is around the corner. That mistake happened once before. It shouldn’t be repeated.
April 21, 2016 § 1 Comment
Two important events took place in the last seven days related to Israel’s role in American political discourse. The first was last Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had one of the longest sustained exchanges on Israel that I can recall in any presidential primary debate. The second was the annual J Street conference, which hosted speeches by Joe Biden and John Kerry that were both critical of the current Israeli government to some degree. The conventional wisdom that has coalesced around the first is wrong, and the second demonstrates why. What they both point to is not that some mythical taboo about Israel has been broken, but that the extent to which Israel is politicized is changing and that the pro-Israel community will have to grapple with a new landscape.
After being asked about the U.S.-Israel relationship during the debate last week, Sanders made a number of points that have attracted attention, among them that Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 despite defending Israel’s right to defend itself; that Palestinians must be treated with dignity and respect; and that the U.S. has to say that Bibi Netanyahu is not right all the time. Many rushed to dub this an unprecedented expansion of the dialogue surrounding Israel in the American political system. An ABC News article called it “something that Mideast experts and advocates on either side have never seen someone in his position do before,” while CNN went even further, trumpeting that “Bernie Sanders is taking a sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel” and that “he upended a long-standing tenet of American politics: that unflinching support for Israel is non-negotiable.”
There’s no question that Sanders’ defense of Palestinian rights was unprecedented for a presidential debate, and he deserves credit for taking a principled stand. But let’s not overblow the big picture; to suggest that he has smashed some redline on Israel and the manner in which the U.S. supports it takes a unique type of historical amnesia or outright ignorance. It reminds me of those who denounce the suppression of critical views of Israel in the midst of embarking on speaking tours or writing best-selling books doing the very thing that they claim is impossible to do. Let’s leave aside the current very public contretemps that have taken place between President Obama and Netanyahu – both of whom would no doubt guffaw at the claim that Sanders is unique in saying that Netanyahu is not always right – or the famed incident during the first President Bush’s administration when Secretary of State James Baker in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted Israel for obstructionism and recited the White House’s phone number for the Israelis to call “when you’re serious about peace,” or when President Ford publicly rebuked Israel and announced a reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East due to frustration with the Israelis. Perhaps the nastiest moment between the U.S. and Israel came during the Reagan administration and the debate over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, when the White House and the deal’s supporters in Congress publicly decried Israeli influence and made the case that Israel was inappropriately attempting to subvert U.S. foreign policy for its own ends. In a foreshadowing of last year’s Iran debate, the Reagan administration repeatedly insisted that the AWACS sale would actually benefit Israeli security, despite the Israeli government’s insistence to the contrary. To argue in the wake of the Clinton-Sanders debate that we have now approached a unique moment, where politicians are for the first time doing anything other than providing Israel with a figurative blank check, is quite plainly abject nonsense.
In fact, Israel has always simultaneously been politicized while drawing bipartisan support. The question is not if, but to what extent, and that brings us to J Street’s annual gathering. J Street has done a very good job over the past eight years of building and selling itself as the home for Jewish Democrats, making the case that AIPAC no longer represents their thinking on Israel. While I have no doubt at all that AIPAC’s leadership continues to harbor, and always will harbor, bipartisan ambitions, and there is also little question that there are still substantial numbers of Democrats who are comfortable in the AIPAC fold, there is also little question that the monopoly AIPAC once enjoyed is now over. I find it hard to see J Street ever rising to AIPAC’s size or influence, but it has a permanent and significant niche. Biden and Kerry went to address J Street as a reward for the organization’s advocacy of the Iran deal, but do not expect this to be a one-time thing. Democrats are increasingly going to show up to both AIPAC and J Street, and it reflects the fact that J Street is in tune with much of the Democratic base.
This is also a function of Newton’s third law in action with regard to Netanyahu and the Republican Party. The symbiotic relationship between the two and the barely disguised effort on the Israeli government’s part to favor one side of the American political spectrum over the other was guaranteed to provoke a response. The form the response has taken is that Democrats are more comfortable criticizing Netanyahu, and J Street is happy to take a different approach to AIPAC on this subject and capitalize on the new political battle lines. Once the Republicans and Netanyahu dropped any hesitation at using Israel as a cudgel, the Democrats were going to drop their hesitation at using Israel in their own way, which means a tilt toward J Street. The battle to keep J Street out of the mainstream is over, even if AIPAC is still going to be the more obvious destination for many.
This ultimately means that the politicization of Israel will not only continue apace, but increase. J Street is a different sort of animal than AIPAC in that it is far more of an overtly political organization. I don’t mean this as a knock on J Street, since there is nothing wrong with being political, but it does mean that there are consequences for the structure of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. One need look no further than the debate in Las Vegas last month between J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks to see where things are headed. An AIPAC chief would never agree to participate in such a debate, but it is a simple fact that as more Democrats move toward J Street, AIPAC is going to look even more Republican than it already does to many by default. American Jews who legitimately care about Israel are going to divide even more starkly into two camps, and that means unification around a general platitude of being pro-Israel but harsh disagreement on the specifics and boundaries of what that means. Israel is being politicized, but if you think that a socialist candidate for president who criticizes Israel during a primary debate is the harbinger of a groundbreaking new trend, you haven’t been paying very close attention.
March 23, 2016 § 5 Comments
Thursday is Purim, the holiday that commemorates the story relayed by the Book of Esther of the near destruction of a diaspora Jewish community. Jewish kids all over the world will dress up like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish heroes of the story, and Jews will loudly boo and hiss at the mention of Haman, the story’s villain, whose plot to exterminate a Jewish community was foiled. Amidst all of this, the central character of the story, King Ahashverosh, will be largely ignored, but this year he shouldn’t be. If anything, this should be the Year of Ahashverosh, because if Donald Trump wanted to dress up for Purim, he could not pick a truer-to-form costume than that of the Persian king.
The Ahashverosh that we meet in the Purim story is a vain, superficial king, who lives in a palace festooned with gold and marble and is obsessed with throwing the greatest parties and having beautiful women at his beck and call. We know nothing about his policy preferences or what his thoughts are on the pressing issues of the day because he never expresses any. Everything is outsourced to his coterie of advisers, who are more concerned with the king’s image and how he is perceived than they are with any other matter. It is the king’s honor and public image that matter above all, and it is thus public slights that irk him the most, such as his wife Vashti refusing to obey his command to parade herself before his party guests. He is a preening, buffoonish, wholly undeserving king, someone to be laughed at rather than respected and someone who gives no indication that he is prepared or terribly interested in the deadly serious task of governance. He wants to be king because it’s good to be the king.
The main problem with Ahashverosh is not that he is evil – since he is not presented as such – nor is it his enormous ego and vanity. The main problem with Ahashverosh is that he is a know-nothing who is manipulated by his advisers and prone to taking drastic measures based on his mood or whatever information happens to be presented to him, whether that information is accurate or not. The initial decree to wipe out the Jews comes about when Haman tells the king that there is a group of subjects in the kingdom who are different from everyone else and don’t obey the king’s law, and casually asks if he can have leave to kill them all. Ahashverosh doesn’t ask for any more information, think about the consequences of the request, look into whether it’s feasible to wipe out a whole ethnic category of people for ten thousand talents of silver, or even bother to inquire about the group to which Haman is referring. He basically says, “Sounds good to me,” and goes back to his drinking. When Haman’s plan backfires because it turns out that Esther, Ahashverosh’s new queen, is Jewish, the king reverses his decree with about as much thought as he put into the initial one. Genocide, no genocide; the details don’t matter. Because he has never spent any time seriously contemplating issues more momentous than red wine or white, all that matters is the king’s mood and what he happens to be feeling at the moment.
Unfortunately for all involved, it is nothing but Ahashverosh’s whims that control the fates of all of his subjects and the fates of many others given his reign over a global superpower, and this is what makes him the central character of the Purim story. Haman can be scheming behind the scenes, and Mordechai can be engineering a plan to expose him, and Esther can use her relationship with Ahashverosh to tug on his heartstrings and bring him over to her side, but none of this is dispositive. Ultimately, everything comes down to the snap decisions of a sovereign who has no clear decision-making process, is surrounded by mediocre third-rate courtiers, has never exhibited an interest in anything but spending his wealth in the most ostentatious way possible, and is willing to make life-or-death decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of people based on information less extensive than what you find in a fortune cookie. Sound like anyone you happen to endlessly see on the news lately?
The AIPAC attendees who gave Trump a standing ovation following his speech because he managed to throw some red meat to a hungry throng – Iran is bad, the Palestinian Authority is badder, and President Obama is baddest – should think about the shallowness of this response. Leave aside whatever Trump has said about Israel before his AIPAC address this week, and just focus on what he himself chose to highlight in a prepared speech with a venue all to himself and a captive audience. Should American Jews or supporters of Israel be comforted by a presidential candidate who views sending his private plane to Israel – not that he was on it himself, mind you – following the September 11 attacks as some sort of grand gesture? Should we embrace someone who implies that Jews are so marginal and Israel so controversially toxic by congratulating himself for having “took the risk” of being the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade in that well-known hotbed of violent anti-Semitism that was the Upper East Side in 2004? Should we feel safe in our beds knowing that Trump actually manages to say with a straight face – and make no mistake, he delivered this line entirely unironically before the crowd started laughing – when referring to the Iran deal that he has “studied this issue in great detail…greater by far than anybody else,” suggesting that the overweening narcissist consumed by those who insult the length of his fingers genuinely sees himself as a nuclear arms control expert? Not only is it clear that Trump is a menace to democracy in general, it should be clear following his AIPAC appearance that his views on Israel itself are, like every other subject on which he opines, about as well thought out as those of my three year old son’s.
AIPAC members and supporters are supposed to be a sophisticated audience who study the issues, pore over policy details, and know their JCPOA from their QME. Yet, they stood up to laud a man whose actual knowledge on Israel-related issues runs about as deep as a puddle, which leaves whatever views he happens to hold today subject to change based on whatever was last whispered in his ear. As evidenced by the inane word salad that spilled out of his mouth when he met with the Washington Post editorial board, he cares about “winning,” what people say and write about him, punishing those who criticize him, and making sure to note when the other people in the room are good looking. Everything else – you know, actual policies – are just details to be improvised and maybe filled in later if he gets around to it. Do we really want to entrust the U.S.-Israel alliance and American policy in the Middle East to Ahashverosh come to life, a guy whose mood can be instantly determined by whether his baseball cap is white or red? The Jews of the Purim story avoided being victims of Ahashverosh’s id through sheer luck. The American Jewish community of 2016 can’t afford to take a similar gamble in the casino of Donald Trump’s mind.
March 18, 2016 § 3 Comments
On Monday, Donald Trump is set to address AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Some think that he should never have been invited. Others want Trump’s appearance at AIPAC to be vigorously protested. Both of these positions are eminently understandable, and I will be very surprised if Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is a smooth one, marked by nothing more disruptive than a smattering of polite applause. Republican Jews’ attitudes toward Trump appear to range from nonplussed to horrified, and Democratic Jews’ attitudes probably start at the horrified end of the spectrum and continue further out. Trump should not expect the adoring, genuflecting audience that is typical of his rallies, even if Sheldon Adelson and the editors of Yisrael Hayom appear to be eager to fill the role of Lionel Bengelsdorf to Trump’s Charles Lindbergh.
There will be plenty of time next week to dissect Trump’s AIPAC address after the fact, but there are some important points to make ahead of time. First, Trump’s very appearance at AIPAC turns the thrust of Jewish history on its head. For centuries, Jews lived according to the whims of demagogues and tyrants. Not only were their opinions not relevant, it was often dangerous for the entire Jewish community for their opinions to be expressed at all. Jews were an exceedingly silent minority, just hoping to get through life without being noticed by the Gentile majority. If anyone would be expected to reinforce the idea that Jewish opinion doesn’t matter, it would be Trump. Leaving aside his comments in December about Jews not supporting him because he doesn’t want their money, Trump doesn’t appear to care about winning over anyone’s opinions, Jewish or not. This patron saint of blowhard braggadocio has offended too many groups to count, and while the only things bigger than his ego seem to be his monumental insecurities and desire to be praised, he is also either incapable or unconcerned with telling people what they want to hear. Yet, the man who blows off debates, refuses to do television interviews in person, and retracts the press credentials of reporters who challenge him still feels it necessary to show up at AIPAC’s annual gathering despite what is likely to be a less than welcoming crowd. To the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists that seem to make up Trump’s core base of support, this will cause a contagious outbreak of confirmation bias that Jews control the country. To the rest of us, we should revel in the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel causes are deemed important enough to the bully-in-chief – who, like all bullies, cannot handle being denigrated or confronted – that he is willing to show up at the risk of being bullied himself. It says something about Jews in America at this moment of history, and while Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is distasteful, this is still something remarkable to note.
Second, while I agree with Jonathan Tobin’s assessment that AIPAC had little choice but to invite Trump when it invites every other presidential candidate, it is vitally important that AIPAC not be seen in any way as validating Trump’s candidacy. Here is a plausible, but hopefully far-fetched, scenario: Trump walks out onto the convention hall stage to widespread boos, gives a stem-winder of a speech about how wonderful Israel is and how crucial it is to stand with Israel, does his best insult comic routine targeted at the Obama administration and its policies toward Israel, and leaves the stage to applause and convention attendees remarking that Trump isn’t nearly as bad as they thought. Should this happen, not only will it be a disaster for this country, it will be a disaster for American Jews who will be seen as providing Trump with a springboard toward the Oval Office. AIPAC cannot be seen as legitimizing Trump, even if it provides him with a pulpit. If this means allowing the crowd to boo, or multiple anonymous quotes to journalists from AIPAC grandees about how odious they find Trump, or some other way of signaling that Trump is outside the boundaries of what is acceptable in the American political arena, it must be done.
The reason for this has nothing to do with Israel, which brings me to my final point. As I wrote last week, Trump has not provided a shred of evidence that he is committed to democratic governance beyond collecting votes in order to assume power, which is why his utterances are quite literally indistinguishable from Middle Eastern autocrats (and if you think I am exaggerating and didn’t read me on this subject last week, click on the link at the beginning of this sentence and take my quiz). Trump is a vicious race baiter who singles out religious and ethnic minorities, a misogynist who thinks nothing of belittling women with crude insults, a wannabe strongman who encourages his supporters to employ violence against those who look or think differently than they do, and a majoritarian demagogue who darkly warns of dangerous consequences should he and his supporters not get their way. He represents democracy’s nightmare, and the fact that he was the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel parade or has Jewish progeny or won an empty Jewish National Fund award means absolutely nothing. Jamie Kirchick said it best: “He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.” AIPAC is not only the largest annual gathering of Israel supporters in the U.S., but so far as I can tell it is the largest annual gathering of Jews in the U.S., and it is important for the American Jewish community to send a message. Trump must be rejected not on the basis of his approach to Israel; he must be rejected on the basis of everything else. What he does or does not think about Israel is ancillary to the conversation, because American Jews and the state of Israel do not need a friend who looks like this.