Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Deep Rift Between Jim Baker's "Jewboys"

Back in the late 80's and early 90's they were called, "Baker's Jewboys" -- the policy team of Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, and Dan Kurtzer that helped orchestrate the modestly successful Middle East policy of George H. W. Bush, culminating in the Madrid Conference. The trio were reviled by elements of the Jewish community as self-hating Jews that betrayed Israel (I remember them being called "court Jews" by some Israelis.) Members of the Zionist tribe could understand a Texas goy like Jim Baker pressuring Shamir over the loan guarantees...but how could he be aided and abetted by a team of Jewish policy experts?

At the time, Dan Kurtzer was my neighbor and fellow congregant in the Kemp Mill Synagogue, a breakaway shul that had rented a suburban house for services. Dan is a modern orthodox Jew, a former dean at Yeshiva University, and would become in the nineties -- after Ross cut him out of the peace process, according to Miller -- a distinguished US ambassador to Egypt and Israel. His ambassadorial residence in Cairo was strictly kosher, and I was privileged to visit him when he took up residence as ambassador in Herzeliyah. Dan is deeply committed to the Jewish state. At the time of his tzuris with elements in the American Jewish community, his middle son was studying in a West Bank yeshiva. Kurtzer was not exactly the poster-child for the "Self-hating Jew Club." But in this country if you don't kow-tow to the Israel Lobby and the often self-destructive policies of the Israeli government, you are liable to be called "a self-hating Jew" by pork-eating ignoramuses who mistake ethnic chauvinism for Judaism.

Ross, Miller, and Kurtzer have now all published post mortems for their failed efforts to secure Middle East peace. You would think that these three folks would be pretty much in agreement over who was responsible, right? Guess again. Whereas Ross's book, The Missing Peace, is, in my opinion, a self-serving memoir that places the blame squarely on Arafat and the Palestinians, the books by Kurtzer and Miller, while not absolving Arafat of responsibility, place much of the blame on the Americans, especially Clinton (and Ross), for playing favorites. America became under Clinton, to use the title of Aaron Miller's 2005 op-ed for which he was excoriated, "Israel's Lawyer." If there is any hope for a renewed diplomatic process, both Miller and Kurtzer conclude in their respective books that America must become the honest broker it was during the administration of George H. W. Bush. (Well, relative to the Clinton administration, anyway.)

One example: In Kurtzer's Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace (co-authored with Scott Lasensky) we learn that future US policy should be to
"Build a diverse and experienced negotiating team steeped in regional and functional expertise; encourage open debate and collaboration within the government. A dysfunctional policy process should not be tolerated"

It is clear from Kurtzer and Lasensky's "commentary" that the above lesson was learned well by Jim Baker but entirely missed by Clinton's secretaries of state, Christopher and Albright. Ross, who was appointed to be a special Middle East coordinator by Clinton, did not encourage debate and collaboration. The Clinton policy team is accused by Kurtzer and Lasensky of being "dysfunctional," without any knowledge in Arab culture, a serious drawback especially at Camp David II.

"There was no expert on our team on Islam or Muslim perspectives," said a former Clinton administration official, "[so] when it came to dealing with Jerusalem, there's some very embarrassing episodes that betrayed our lack of knowledge or bias."

Aaron Miller, in his intriguing new book, The Much Too Promised Land makes a similar accusation against the Clinton policy team (of which he was a member). He waxes nostalgiac about Bush 41 and Secretary Baker, as he criticizes the Clinton administration. And why? Simply because the US, under Clinton and Ross, acted as "Israel's lawyer", abandoning all pretence at being an honest broker. In not-so-diplomatic language, he castigates Ross's "driving ambition to succeed and to exert control." Most significantly, he blames Ross for cutting Kurtzer out of the peace-process team in 1994.

Dan's departure in my view was a major loss. We needed his honesty, balance, and creativity, particularly in the mid-1990's and in the run-up to Camp David."

Miller sums up to my mind the fundamental problem of Ross's approach as follows:

Dennis, like myself, had a inherent tendency to see the world of Arab-Israeli politics first from Israel's vantage point rather than from that of the Palestinians. Not that he didn't understand Arab or Palestinian sensitivities. But his own strong Jewish identity, and his commitment to Israel's security combined with something else: a deep conviction that if you couldn't gain Israel's confidence, you have zero chance of erecting any kind of peace process. And to Dennis, achieving this goal required a degree of coordination with the Israeli's, sensitivity toward their substantive concerns, and public defense of their positions. Baker's good judgment and toughness balanced and controlled this inclination, which was not the case under Clinton.

In subsequent posts, I will be citing more from the books by Kurtzer and Lasensky, and by Aaron Miller. There are must-reads for my readers, especially for American Jewish liberals who cheered the American involvement in the peace process. Miller's book, in particular, is the most important book yet to be written on American's attempts to broker mideast peace, (And, by the way, the book is highly entertaining. I found myself laughing out loud occasionally.)

For when you get down to it, the peace-process team under two US presidents was composed of three talented individuals, all Jews, and all liberal Zionists.

Now we know -- from Kurtzer and from Miller, two-thirds of the trio -- that America, Israel, and the Palestinians would have been better served by a more diverse team.

Apparently, Dennis Ross, whose failure was spectacular, still doesn't get it.


Anonymous said...

There isn't necessarily any contradiction between being a "self-hating Jew" and being mitzvot observant. Take for example these extreme "Neturei Karta" guys. They say that the vast majority o f Jews (who support Israel) are ignorant at best or reshaim at worst. They despise the vast majority of Jews. This is Jewish self-hatred. Someone who says "you see, the Jews are bad and they deserve all the terrible things that happen to them", Or "the Holocaust is deserved punishment for Zionism". These are all examples of Jewish self-hatred.

Ben Bayit said...

Anyone who reads my blog will readily see that the Oslo Syndrome described by Dr. Kenneth Levine and other assorted maladies of warped political thinking described by Dr. Ruth Wisse in her articles and books (both of liberal Harvard U.) are as equally relevant to supposedly Orthodox Jews and even Rabbis. They are not immune from these syndromes.

It should come as no surprise that of the 3 Ross was the most objective and bent over the least. He's the non-Orthodox one.

Jerry Haber said...

Ben bayit,

Love your picture. And I am glad to see that a rightwing, pseudonymous ("supposedly"?) Orthodox Jew is reading my blog.

(Sure, you will say that it is "da' ma she-tashiv." But it could very well be either hirhurei teshuva, or hirhurei averah.)

But please don't insult me or your intelligence. You refer to Ruth Wisse and Dr. Kenneth "Levine" (his name is Levin, by the way) "of liberal Harvard U." Am I suppose to infer from this that these folks are liberal, even though they are notoriously rightwing? Or that, despite the fact that they are rightwing, they are so good as to be hired by "liberal" Harvard -- even though they weren't hired on the basis of their rightwing opinions, but on the basis of their expertise in Yiddish and psychiatry?

Regarding Ruth Wisse, you can read my post on her ("Tough Jewess").
A historian she ain't.

As for Kenneth Levin, I note that it is classic antisemitism to suggest that Jews are suffering from destructive pathologies. The attempts of the Jewish right to "explain" Jewish positions of the left in terms of pathology, syndromes, and illness, shows how deep nineteenth antisemitism has affected their own thinking.

That doesn't make them sick, just similar to ultra-nationalist intellectualis of all stripes(French and German come to mind.)

Oh, and Aaron Miller isn't orthodox.

Ben Bayit said...

There is nothing you can write that will convince me of your position. I'm actually glad that your blog exists - because it proves that the path sought by many right-wing religious Jews - that of engaging in mass kiruv rechokim - is a fallacy. Mass kiruv rechokim is not the answer to the problems of the State of Israel. Therefore it is good for people to be exposed to modern orthodox non- (or anti-)Zionist thinking, so they can see this vestige of the type of thinking that led rabbonim to write letters to Hitler and that it is not juct crazy neturei karta folks who wish to see the dismantling of the State.

Being religious should NOT and does NOt go a priori hand-in-hand with supporting security, supporting democracy or even supporting a Jewish State. You are a good example of that and it is good for people to be exposed to your type of thinking.

I do not think it is anti-semitic to say that Jews suffer from a malady when they invoke kamtza/bar-kamtza as a sort of political reasoning that is without foundation in fact.

Jerry Haber said...

Ben Bayit, you write better than you read. But with my penchant for typos, I shouldn't throw stones.

The blog is called the Magnes Zionist. The first top post is called Zionism Without a Jewish State. So why are you calling me a non-Zionist or an anti-Zionist. I know plenty of those types who would laugh at me for being called that.

I am a Zionist in the mold of Judah Magnes, one of the early and great Zionist leaders in the United States, who became the first chancellor and then president (or vice-versa, I can't remember) of Hebrew University.

To be a Zionist then was not necessarily to believe in founding an ethnic state a la Albania in Palestine. It meant acknowledging the spiritual centrality of Eretz Yisrael, and building a model society, including a revival of Jewish-Hebraic culture, as part of a broader entity, working in partnership with Palestinian Arabs. Such models were not lacking, especially in the early twentieth century.

When statehood was a done deal in 1948, Magnes's Ihud organization dropped the call for a bi-national state, and proposed instead a federation, a United States of Palestine, that would include within it the nascent Jewish state.

I would be happy with a set-up like that, provided that the "Jewish" state is a democracy for all its citizens, with a Judaic culture (language/calendar) as one of the dominant cultures.

Start thinking outside of the box, Ben.

April 15, 2008 6:26 AM

yitz said...

If Dan Kurtzer is so modern orthodox, why is he NEVER seen wearing a kippah? Back in the 50s there was an excuse not to wear one but today there is no excuse at all, the (religious)Arabs have no problem, never being seen without a keffiyeh.
Does Dan Kurtzer hav a Rav to advise him what is halachically acceptable regarding Eretz Yisroel? One can not be religious without a Rav!