Monday, November 17, 2008

Endorsement: Benjamin Netanyahu for Prime Minister

Elections for Israel's parliament are scheduled for February 10, 2009. Israel, the least stable parliamentary regime in the Middle East, now holds parliamentary elections on the average of one every 2-3 years. There is no reason to believe that the government to be elected will last longer than its predecessors. So the question is: who will be the best prime minister for Israelis and the Palestinians ruled by Israel. As far as I can see, there are two main possibilities: Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu. Between the two, Netanyahu wins hands down.

Tzipi Livni is considered a moderate by Israeli standards, which means that she is rightwing by most people's standards. She rose within the Likud party and followed Sharon and Olmert in starting the Kadima party. She has had some ministerial posts, but, aside from a few interesting comments, she has done nothing to distinguish herself, nor has she taken any risks for her positions. She was a pale and ineffectual Foreign Minister; she would be a pale and ineffectual Prime Minister.

However her reputation for being a moderate, coupled with her gender, makes her a problematic choice for Israeli prime minister. As a perceived moderate, she will be cut a lot of slack by the Obama administration, as was Sharon and Olmert by the Bush administration. As a perceived moderate who is also a woman, she will be cut even more slack by the world. The story of her election will not be about the success of yet another mediocre Likud functionary, but of a woman. And just as the Republicans played the gender card as much as they could in order to defend Sarah Palin, so too, the Israels would do that with Livni. Livni would be the first woman prime minister since that all-time-disaster, Golda Meir. No, I don't think that Livni is as bad as Golda. But what government will want to put pressure on her?

By contrast, Bibi's candidacy looks like pure gold. Let us count the ways:

1. Bibi enjoys a negative reputation outside of Israel. Unlike Livni, Bibi is tarred with the rightwing brush. The folks outside of Israel remember the Rabin assassination, and Bibi's tenure as prime minister, long after most Israelis have forgotten it. They remember how he has opposed every peace initiative from the right. He is the face of Israel intransigence, God bless him. And that will make it easier to put pressure on his administration.

2. Bibi talks tough, but has wimped out time after time. He wimped out after the Jerusalem tunnels were opened, at Wye Plantation, and during the Golan negotiations. He is easy to pressure and he buckles under pressure. He craves US acceptance.

3. By contrast, Ehud Barak, talked the peace talk and was cut enormous slack by the Clinton administration and the world. Settlements boomed during his tenure, and the Intifada blew up after his "generous offer" was rejected.

4. Bibi doesn't believe in the peace process, and he is correct not to. The peace process is a sham that helps Israel while hurting the Palestinians. Better that there be no illusions to the contrary. Bibi has said that while he doesn't believe in the peace process, he does want to improve the Palestinian economy. I don't think he will do that when faced with the realities of governing Israel and making his constituency happy. But if he is able to raise the quality of life among the Palestinians as a trade-off for political recognition and independence, then that is preferable to denying them both.

5. Electing Bibi will be another recognition that Israel has run out of ideas and out of fresh faces that can bring hope. Now that Bibi has copied the look and feel of the Obama website, and is positioning himself as the candidate for change (!), his election can only place in stark relief the weariness of Israeli politics.

Vote Bibi!

A final note: The usual suspects of the old "Zionist left," led by dinosaur Amos Oz, are forming a new party with the tentative name, "Titanic Desk-Chairs," or something like that. The only interesting one in the bunch is Avrum Burg, but his willingness to join a reinvented Meretz speaks volumes about his insatiable political appetite.

Wake me up when it is over.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Israel Bars Liberal Rabbis from Visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron

Yesterday, a group of North American rabbis on a tour sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights, and led by the IDF veterans' group, Breaking the Silence, was prevented from visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the Cave of Machpelah.

During Jordanian rule, no Jews were allowed within the site, which is also a mosque. That changed when Israel occupied Hebron in 1967. After the Barukh Goldstein massacre, an elaborate division of the Tomb of the Patriarch was engineered by Israel.

Apparently in order to visit or pray in the Tomb it is not necessary or sufficient to be a Jew, or even a Rabbi. What is really important is that one must be a rightwing racist, bigot, or settler of the Judaeo-Christian variety.

Otherwise, it is hard to explain why a delegation of forty American rabbis and their guests were barred by the Israel Defense Forces from visiting the spot.

As a Jew – no, as a human being -- I strongly believe that Jews should be allowed to visit synagogues. Heck, I am also in favor of Jewish settlement in Hebron.

Unfortunately, no Jews today live in Hebron. Only "Pseudo-Jewdos" with guns. And they call the shots, quite literally, when it comes to who can visit Hebron.


Hey, I Know That Guy!

The New York Times reported today that Martin Eisentadt, the purported source of the "Palin-Didn't Know-That-Africa-Is-A-Continent" story, a senior advisor of the McCain campaign, and a fellow at the "Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy," was a fictional blogger invented by Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, whom the Times described as "obscure filmmakers." They staged the hoax in order to pitch a television show they are developing.

Martin Eisenstadt doesn't exist, but I've heard a lot about Eitan for years from his parents, who are friends and former neighbors. I used to belong to a modern orthodox synagogue in suburban Maryland that includes among its members former ambassador to Egypt and to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, former undersecretary of Defense, Dov Zakheim, former Jerusalem Post editor, David Makovsky, and current Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Nathan J. Diament. It's a good shul, with an impressive rabbi, and a wonderful Shabbat hashkamah minyan, attended by Eitan's father. (There is less single-malt scotch for kiddush than at my current shul, but the latter is inside the Beltway.) I would not be surprised if Obama grabbed a larger percentage of orthodox voters at this shul than at any other orthodox shul in the country. But I would also not be surprised if McCain received an even larger percentage, especially since some of the members moved to the right after the failure of Oslo.

But "obscure filmmaker?" Oy! Gorlin's first (and only) feature, The Holy Land, was described by Stuart Klawans in the Nation as "a sometimes heartbroken, sometimes furious coming-of-age drama, set in a bleak and outrageous version of Israeli society. " Steven Holden of the Times was admittedly less enthusiastic:

The Holy Land, which opens today in Manhattan, is a barbed reflection on the great divide between secular and ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israeli culture. But its digressive screenplay lacks focus and momentum and is too oblique to connect many of the dots between its characters and their behavior. Their politics are too murky to come into dramatic focus…But the performances are strong.

But critics were pretty evenly divided over the movie, which received 53% on the, "Tomatometer."

Let's hope that Gorlin's latest effort – a hoax that displays the credulity of the mass media, and the power of pseudonomynous bloggers (woohoo!) gets him the publicity he needs for making serious films and television shows. He's a good boy from a good community, and I wish him and Mirvish well.

Please puncture this trial baloon

The Washington Post and other media outlets suggest that the Obama transition team is considering Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. The Chicago Tribune reports that the Obama transition team will not confirm this.

If Hillary became Secretary of State, it would be a disaster for the Palestinians, hence, for the Israelis.

Let's be clear: Hillary Clinton is virtually a Jewish senator; ever since moving to New York she has kow-towed entirely to her Jewish constituency. Actually, she already distanced herself from the Palestinians after the negative reaction to her embrace of Suha Arafat. Her husband Bill is completely in the liberal Zionist camp. A Clinton as the Secretary of State, even with the likes of Dan Kurtzer serving underneath her, would send the peace process back to the nineties, God forbid.

Why would she give up real power in the Senate for a nebulous job that would neither advance her career, or her country's foreign policy. I admire Hillary greatly. But let her stay in the Senate and do what she does best.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama’s Mideast Team – Who’s In, Who’s Not In (Yet), Who’s Probably Out

N.B. The following post is based on conversations I have had in the last few days with folks who are close to Obama's inner circle, as well as folks who have played a role in the peace process in the past. But I am responsible for its contents.

Who's In

If the main theme of the Obama campaign was "change," then the main question to be posed to the nascent Obama administration is, "Are we going going back to the Clinton era?" In recent days, Obama camp aides have floated in the media some old names as trial balloons. We should expect some of those baloons to pop. (Does anybody have a needle for the Larry Summers' balloon?)

Two prominent members of the Clinton Mideast team – Dennis Ross and Dan Kurtzer – still have seats aboard the Obama train, according to my sources. I don't know whether they have been offered specific positions, since without a Secretary of State or a National Security Advisor we are in the embryonic phase of the administration. So perhaps I should say that as things stand now, they are in. No surprise there, of course; both Kurtzer and Ross were active as Obama advisors during the campaign, although Ross was more visible, especially towards the end.

At first glance, Ross is, or should be, a persona non grata for Jewish progressives, not so much for his liberal Zionist bias, but for his petulant and tendentious criticisms of Arafat and the Palestinians after the demise of the Peace Process, and for his willingness to serve on the board of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute of the Elders of Zionism, oops, sorry, the Jewish Agency. (By the way, that's how an old family friend and former head of the Agency, Chuck Hoffberger, called it). To put a partisan Zionist like Dennis Ross in charge of the US Peace Process would make little sense, as Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar recently implied. Still, Ross's expertise, not to mention political savvy, qualifies him for occupying the liberal Zionist seat at the Obama Mideast table – provided that the seat is not located at the head of the table.

What ensures that Ross will not be running the show is the presence of Dan Kurtzer, former Ambassador to Egypt and to Israel. Kurtzer recently withdrew from being considered for the position of the Director of the new Gildenhorn Center for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland which suggested that he had bigger fish to fry, a suggestion that has been confirmed. But Kurtzer will probably not consent to serve under Dennis Ross, who, according to Aaron Miller, cut him out of the Peace Process. Kurtzer's positions are more nuanced and balanced than Ross's, though they are on the left-wing of American Zionism. Ross likes to see himself as "centrist" between the Palestinians and the hardliner Zionists, but he accepts the liberal Zionist narrative and is a fan of Ben-Gurion.

It is more likely that Ross will expand his sights to include the entire Middle East, especially Iran. That would be an even bigger pity, since Ross wants to isolate Iran in the region, though he is not entirely opposed to US carrots. Will Ross become a Super Envoy to the Middle East? Hopefully not, since that sort of diplomacy hasn't been successful in recent years. And, of course, Ross's level would almost be that of the Secretary of State. What Secretary of State would be willing to have somebody of Ross's stature around?

Indeed, the problem that Ross has, and Kurtzer doesn't, is that there are not so many positions available to him. If he isn't Secretary of State or National Security Advisor (the latter is more probable than the former), then what can he do? Kurtzer, unlike Ross, hasn't risen beyond the level of Ambassador. He certainly could be in line for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.

Who's Not In Yet

Rob Malley, the bugbear of rightwingers like Ed Laskey, not to mention some really slimey bloggers, has served in the past as an advisor to Barack Obama, and co-wrote the definitive analysis of the Camp David debacle in the New York Review of Books (The article isn't free). Malley is neither in nor out, according to my sources. Even though his name seems forever linked to Obama and Hamas, according to the rightwing rumor mongers, he did not contact Hamas recently on behalf of Obama campaign (the contacts, reported in Haaretz, were subsequently denied by Hamas) nor was he sent to Egypt and Syria on a mission from Obama, despite a bogus news release to that effect by the Middle East News Line. Apparently, the name "Malley" has become a synonym for "Haman" in some quarters; upon hearing it one mindlessly makes noise, no matter what the context or the truth of the story.

Who's Probably Out

Count out Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel, currently of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute. Indyk has completed an interesting book on the Peace Process which will be published soon, and whose conclusions may surprise those expecting more conventional finger-pointing in the conclusion. Indyk, unlike many liberal pro-Israel voices, does not want to advance Middle East peace tracks in order to isolate Iran, but rather wants to get Iran to buy in (or at least to think that she is buying in) to the process. Indyk's thinking has evolved positively over the years, in contrast to Ross's, which has essentially remained the same.

Also count out Aaron David Miller, whose memoir of the peace process is one of the most perceptive, and certainly the most entertaining and well-written. (It's a pity that it came out after Ross's book; whole forests could have been saved.) Miller is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Public Policy. I think that he has eaten too many rubber chickens and taken too many helicopter rides to be nostalgiac for the glamourous life of a Peace Process advisor.

A Washington think tank may not be as sexy as shuttle diplomacy, but it sure is better for one's social and family life.

Who's Really Out

Nowhere near Obama's Mideast team, as far as I know, is anybody who can not just understand intellectually but empathize with the struggles and suffering of the Palestinian people, say, a Palestinian American or a Palestinian academic. Look, I have the highest respect and admiration for Dan Kurtzer – frankly, he is one of the first modern orthodox Jews who make me proud to be a member of that subgroup. But he remains a modern orthodox Jew and a liberal Zionist. Why is it so "out-of-the-box" to have a "modern orthodox" Palestinian advising President Obama? In a country where "Arab" and "Palestinian" are used as ethnic slurs, wouldn't it be nice for somebody like an Abunimeh or a Khalidi, maybe somebody with foreign policy credentials, to be part of that team?

Now that would be nice – for a real change

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Joy, Mixed With a Little Sadness

Several weeks ago I predicted that Barack Obama would win in a landslide. He didn't win by double digits, but he defeated John McCain handily.

What does that say about us Americans?

Pundits and talking-heads are now analyzing the results of the election. Republican conservatives blame the party for straying from its Reaganesque principles (they forgot Reagan's spending.) Republican moderates blame everything but themselves: the economy, a protracted and unpopular war, the financial crisis, the unpopularity of George W. Bush, as if president had belonged to another party. Democrats, needless to say, add to this litany the magic of the candidate himself, and the brilliance of his political campaign.

All Americans, with the exception, perhaps, of the loonies of the extreme right, understand the significance of this day. Even Republicans -- goodness, even Charles Krauthammer, who looked on television last night as if he had been staring into Mordor for 48 hours -- "gets it."

And what is the "it" that they get? Most importantly, the greatness of this country -- the first non third-world country -- that has made a black man the head of state. And not because he is black, for Obama is not of the "generation of the aggrieved;" he is no Jesse Jackson, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Oh, sure, there are many blacks who voted to him out of racial-cultural loyalty without knowing much about his policies. But that is not what got him elected by 52% of the vote. He was elected because, in being black, he also transcended his blackness and his whiteness. He won because, darn it, he is an AMERICAN first, and a colored man second. He never hid hid blackness, nor his whiteness. Nor did he run on them. He convinced Americans that he would work tirelessly for them. And Americans came to believe him.

What elected Barack Obama was a truly rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities, including -- God bless us -- the Jews. All of us are the children of hope; the children of "Yes, we can."

What allowed millions of Americans to say, "I never thought in my lifetime that I would see this day" -= against all the cynics, pundits, and pessimists (count me in all three of those categories) -- was the realization of that hope. Call it sentimentalism, call it nostalgia, call it Hollywood, call it Jimmy Stewart, call it whatever you like.

I call it America.

But I am not only an American. I am also an Israeli Jew. And here is my sadness.

You see, many Israelis still don't get it. Anybody who has been following the press coverage from Israel of the presidential election can see that. And I am not only talking about a soft porn writer like Naomi Ragen who exemplifies what Eliezer Berkowitz called "Hitler's Posthumous Victory," the destruction of the Jewish Soul. I refer to the so-called Israeli secular liberals. Only the day before yesterday the Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk could write in YNET that McCain would win the election, because John-Wayne Americans were incapable of electing a black man president! Kaniuk, who lived in American for ten years decades ago, combines European snobbism, Israeli arrogance, and Jewish bigotry to come up with that bizarre prediction.

What about columnist Amir Oren, writing in Haaretz, who called Obama "a Jimmy Carter with a suntan." Aside from the blatant racism of the remark, it is simply idiotic and way off the mark, but it speaks volumes about the sublimated hatred of moral exemplars like Carter and Obama in military types like Oren.

But why stop there? Headlines like, "The Victory of Minorities", not to mention the talkbacks, show that so many Israelis still don't get it. Hello, it was the majority that won, not the minorities. Unless we are all minorities on this bus.

Still, there is some signs that the message is starting to sink in. And if the message of Barack Obama is the "audacity of hope" -- and the phrase was coined by Rev. Wright, God bless him -- then maybe we have to give some time to the Israelis, mired deeply in their collective psychosis, to "get it". Already, the headlines in Israeli papers today are beginning to reflect the greatness of the hour. After the initial cynicism and condescension, the excitement is beginning to be felt.

And here is another hopeful statistic - for Judaism in America, anyway. According to exit polls, 78% of the Jews voted for Obama, even more than those who voted for Kerry in 2004. All the dirt, hatred, lies, money, poisonous emails, only strengthened the Jews for Obama -- because they saw through the Republican ads.

The vocal minority of rightwingers were crushed at the polls by the silent majority of Jews who climbed on the train of history and left the hatemongers at the station.

To that small but loudmouthed minority of Jewish zealots I say: you said that Obama was a radical, a leftist, an extreme Muslim, somebody who pals around with terrorists and anti-Semites, who will do what he can to appease Iran, and will be a dangerous enemy of Israel.

Well, he may or may not be those things -- but one thing he is for sure: the President of the United States, elected by an overwhelming majority.

I hope you sleep well at night. In Jerusalem, I, and my children and grandchildren, certainly will.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


It is 2 am in Washington, DC. Horns are blaring "ta-ta-taa" (or, if you like, "teki'ah"), code for "Yes, we can!" and "O-bah-mah!" I just walked with the crowds to the White House where thousands are celebrating, young and old, all races, colors, and creeds.

What a day! What a night!

The day started for me 22 hours ago, when a mixture of excitement and liberal guilt woke me up and sent me to Alexandria, Virginia, where I watched polls and made phone calls for the Obama campaign. Then a half day at work, a small "party" for colleagues to watch the returns. When the networks projected Obama as the victor – at 11 pm Eastern Standard Time – the city erupted.

I hope my earplugs are working tonight. No, there is no way I can sleep through the din.

I will have a lot more to write tomorrow. About the Obama Landslide. About his Mandate. About why America can, and how it did. And why Israel can't, but can draw hope from a great country.

But for now…Barukh atah ha-Shem, elokeinu melekh ha-olam, she-heheyanu, ve-kiyimanu, ve-higi'anu la-zman ha-zeh. Blessed are you, O Lord, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this great period of history."