Bibi and Buji: A Bad Union

With all eyes on the framework agreement for a nuclear deal with Iran, and on the looming Capitol Hill battle to defend it, it is easy to forget that Israel is still in the process of forming its new government. With much of the drama playing out offstage, many observers are sitting back and waiting for the political wrangling over ministries and BenjaminNetanyahuKnesset committee chairs to be over.

Isaac_Herzog_2004But some are making the case that there is more brewing than the doling out of prestige appointments to the leaders of the parties expected to be part of the fourth Benjamin Netanyahu government. A unity government, at one time thoroughly rejected by both Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, has emerged again as at least a theoretical possibility. Read more at the FMEP blog.

Stav Shaffir’s Outstanding Twitter Rebuke of Bibi

You know who could lead Labor to not only a victory of most Knesset seats, but perhaps even a liberal revival in Israel and a governing coalition without the right? Not Herzog, not Livni, certainly not Yachimovich, and not, as much as I admire her, Zehava Galon. It is Stav Shafir who can do that. I paste below a brief exchange between Shaffir and Benjamin Netanyahu on Twitter a short while ago. English translation follows the Hebrew (and it’s my translation, so forgive any flaws, please).

@netanyahu:
כשאנחנו מדברים על מחירי הדיור, על יוקר המחייה, אני לרגע לא שוכח את החיים עצמם. האתגר הגדול ביותר לחיינו כעת הוא התחמשות איראן בנשק גרעיני

@StavShaffir:
@netanyahu שש שנים ומסר אחד יש לך לבני ובנות הדור שלי: תגידו תודה שאתם בחיים ותשתקו. מצטערת, ביבי, החיים שלנו שווים הרבה יותר מהתירוצים האלה
האתגרים של אזרחי ישראל הם רבים. אי אפשר להפריד בין האתגר הבטחוני לאתגרי היום יום שהולכים ומתרבים. זה היה התפקיד שלך לפתור, ונכשלת

English:
Netanyahu: When we speak about housing prices, on the cost of living, I do not forget for one minute the lives themselves. The greatest challenge to our lives right now is a nuclear Iran.

Shaffir: Six years, and you have only one message to the sons and daughters of my generation: Say “thank you” that you are alive and shut up. Sorry, Bibi, our lives are worth a lot more than these excuses. There are a great many challenges for the citizens of Israel. It is impossible to separate the security challenge and the everyday challenges that are multiplying. This was YOUR problem to solve, and you failed.

Mitchell Plitnick: And that’s why I am so very impressed with Stav Shaffir.

Netanyahu and Obama: Name-Calling and its Discontents

The obsession in politics and diplomacy with decorum–largely a relic from the past–can easily distract people from the realities of the present. 8575956802_b0f1918361_zCase in point, the uproar over Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest article in the Atlantic, the headline of which, The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here, would seem important enough to warrant more attention than it has gotten so far.

Instead, the whisper of an unnamed “senior Obama administration official,” who called Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” has occupied headlines. And instead of taking a strong, or even a weak stance on Netanyahu’s repeated declarations about expanding settlement activity everywhere in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the White House has only tried to distance itself from the remark, describing it as “unauthorized” and “inappropriate.”

As Goldberg himself pointed out, the fact that Bibi is a chickenshit is not entirely a bad thing. Whatever else it does, it also makes him quite afraid to back up his rhetoric with action. Even in Gaza this summer, the ongoing slaughter seemed, from Netanyahu’s point of view, to be something that spiraled much further out of control than he had intended. Indeed, his constant shifting of the mission’s goal posts indicated the lack of any sort of planning beforehand. Political pressures kept driving him on, as they do with most of his actions. But at least the “chickenshit” was never going to attack Iran despite his bellicosity, as the United States seems to finally understand.

Being less of a leader and more of a leaf blowing in the political wind is an apt description of Netanyahu, and it is strongly suggested in Goldberg’s piece. But it also applies to the Obama administration, which has repeatedly refused to use the tools it has at its disposal to create real pressure on Israel to, at the very least, desist from its actions that are obviously intended to destroy any possibility of a two-state solution. So, chickenshit cuts both ways.

Maybe Goldberg intended the chickenshit comment to overshadow the rest of his point, maybe he didn’t. But the assertion that we are in a period of crisis for US-Israel relations is a very important one. The question is: are we?

The simple answer is no, but Goldberg is not wrong in suggesting that such a crisis could occur in the near future. One can understand why Goldberg focuses so much on personal clashes. Never in the history of Israel has there been a government that so arrogantly insulted the United States so frequently. Whether it’s Netanyahu, Finance Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, or some other member of the Knesset, anti-American statements have risen to unprecedented levels.

For their part, US officials have been getting just the tiniest bit harsher in their criticism of Israel, while Israeli officials escalate their anti-US rhetoric. And then there’s the endless stories about how much Obama and Netanyahu dislike each other, with Goldberg’s in the lead. The problem, of course, as it is presented in this narrative of interpersonal conflict, is bad communication, or mismatched personalities.

In reality, none of this is really about Bibi and Barack disliking each other. They do, but that is beside the point. It is the direction that Israel has decided to go in that is the problem.

Let’s start off by noting that the degree of the “crisis” is being massively overblown. There is a much bigger problem in Europe for Bibi than there is in the United States. The Europeans are actually threatening to take some action, not just calling Bibi names in whispers to reporters. Sweden’s recognition of Palestine as a state is just a first step in a series of actions that might be on the horizon from Europe, where Israel conducts the biggest share of its trade. When the United States gets to that point, as it has on occasion in the ever more distant past, then we can start wondering if there is a crisis in relations that might cause some small shift in the status quo.

The “chickenshit” epithet can apply to Obama just as much as it can to Netanyahu. He is a president with a non-confrontational style trying to govern with what is, arguably, the most defiant and combative Congress any president has ever had to deal with. And he is dealing with an Israeli government that is pursuing a very different strategy than its predecessors. The Israel of today no longer cares about the majority of the Jewish community in the United States. This Israel, correctly, determined that its ultimate desire to completely thwart a two-state solution and maintain an apartheid system over the Palestinians would never be acceptable to most American Jews. But most US Jews weren’t the ones providing the political power and, more importantly, the funding for congressional campaigns and for settlements in the West Bank.

The Jews that do provide these things, as well as the Christians, are right-wingers, either in their general politics or at least on Middle East policy (including policy toward the entire Arab world, Iran and Turkey). They are now the only ones Israel cares about. More liberal-minded devotees are not, at this stage, providing that much support for Israel, either economically or financially. Those of them who do provide this support will continue to check their otherwise liberal values at the Israeli door. The rest are not, in the estimate of the Netanyahu government, worth the compromises that must be made to garner their support.

In this circumstance, Israel has a freer hand in its actions. While Netanyahu announces more and more building plans in East Jerusalem and other sensitive parts of the Occupied Territories, Republicans, who stand a good chance of controlling both houses of Congress, are not criticizing Israeli actions in the slightest. Instead, as one would expect, they are attacking Obama for his insufficient support of Israel.

In this context, Israeli journalist Roi Ben-Yishai, one of Israel’s best, recently reported on Israel’s “new approach” to the Palestinians. It holds few surprises. Israel is not intending to return to talks, correctly believing they will be futile, and therefore would only make things worse. Israel’s assessment will remain correct until its own positions can be moderated by pressure like that of the Palestinians over the years.

The plan is then to have the quiescent Palestinian Authority (PA) assume control over Gaza and reinforce its control on the West Bank. In other words, marginalize Hamas throughout the Palestinian body politic. Under those circumstances, Israel would end the siege of Gaza and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank as well. The idea is that the Palestinians can then build a functional economy, which Israel believes will cause the Palestinian people to oppose actions that could draw Israeli military reprisals. I rather doubt that would be the result, but right now, the delays in Palestinian international action imply that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is cooperating with Israel and Egypt on this effort, probably in the hope that this strategy would eliminate Hamas as a political rival.

This seems like another doomed plan, one that harkens back to old Israeli beliefs that Palestinian nationalism will eventually just go away. But we must recognize that this is happening with the silent approval of the United States. Egypt, in particular, would not work with Israel on such a plan if it believed that the United States would object. More to the point, the plan is also intended to provide the US with what it wants most: Palestinian silence. What American policy has always represented is the complete lack of importance placed on the welfare of the Palestinians, or anyone else (including ordinary Israelis) in the region, for that matter. The entire issue is only relevant insofar as it affects more “important” US concerns.

So, the Obama administration will likely allow Israel to proceed with its plans, even if it doesn’t believe those plans are likely to succeed. This is evident in the lack of material response to Israel’s direct challenge to the international consensus on a two-state solution.

The name-calling most recently highlighted by Goldberg merely reflects these disagreements and the fact that the increasingly populist and rightward tilt not only in the Israeli government but also in its population leads to verbose criticism of US officials, up to and including the president. Responses to such insults can be countered by Israel’s power in Congress in a way that more fundamental policy differences cannot. That frustrates some American officials, but it doesn’t provoke any material US response.

If Congress persists in pressuring the administration on its Iran policy, a pressure which most understand as directed by Jerusalem, Obama may well respond through the Palestinian issue. In that case, we might see a more direct counter to Israeli policies, such as a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements or even an “Obama Plan” basing a two-state solution on the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. That would be a turn of events not seen in decades, but Israel has also never worked so hard to undermine US goals on foreign policy matters as it has on Iran.

But make no mistake, if the Palestinians get any respite from the Obama administration it will be because of Israel’s meddling through Congress on the Iran issue. It will not be due to any Palestinian action, much less on the insulting attitude of Israeli officials or the personal dislike between the current Israeli leader and the president of the United States. It is, ultimately, all about policy priorities, not personalities.

At UN, Bibi Completes Trifecta of Hopelessness

After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stirred up some controversy by terming Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza a “war of genocide” Netanyahu_speechat the UN General Assembly last week, there was some speculation that the Israeli prime minister would come in breathing fire. But all Benjamin Netanyahu presented in his Monday address was the same old smoke.

Netanyahu was expected to rail against the Palestinian Authority leader, but he merely said he was “refuting” Abbas’ “lies” and instead focused on bringing his two favorite themes together: the Islamic State (IS) and Hamas are the same thing, and Iran is trying to fool the world with a moderate president while trying to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu addressed a largely empty hall, with mostly junior diplomats sitting through his speech, though billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, both staunch pro-Israel advocates, were also spotted in the hall. There was occasional applause but it mostly came from the Israeli delegation, a stark contrast to the kind of reception Bibi gets in the halls of Congress. Adelson apparently hosted Netanyahu for lunch following his speech.

Bibi has routinely made a fool of himself on the international stage. But what he says often plays fairly well in Israel, and it is always greeted with fawning adoration on Capitol Hill, though that means little—the response would be the same if he read from a phone book. Two years ago his Iranian cartoon bomb visual aid was ridiculed. This time he presented a blurry, unconvincing photo of children playing near what he claimed to be a rocket launcher. Few were impressed.

In fact, Bibi’s speech reeked of a desperation that has been a long time coming. True, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are struggling along right now, but not for the reasons he had hoped for. Both sides are stuck on the details of Iran’s future capacity for nuclear enrichment, but both sides are also still committed to finding a resolution. That may or may not happen, but even if talks fail, that desire will remain and no one, absolutely no one, is interested in Bibi’s ludicrous and illegitimate standard of preventing Iran from maintaining any enrichment program at all.

On Gaza, Bibi knows full well that even the Obama administration was displeased by the obviously illegal Israeli actions in the strip this summer. Yes, the US can probably still be counted on to frustrate any UN moves for consequences directed at Israel, but that American view remains problematic as it will only fan the flames of much greater outrage in Europe. Netanyahu would be well-advised to stop talking about Gaza, but instead he peddles the ridiculous line that “Hamas is ISIS.” Again, no one is buying.

Between ham-handed references to retiring New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and demonstrating his lack of geographic knowledge by claiming that Tel Aviv is as close to the Green Line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank) as the UN building is to Times Square (Tel Aviv is actually about five times as far from the Green Line), Netanyahu gave the impression of a man with nothing new to say. And, indeed, there was nothing new.

Perhaps somewhat notable in its absence was any mention of a two-state solution. Netanyahu used his well-worn line about his willingness to make “historic compromises” but said it in the context of declaring his opposition, rather than his support for peace. Here’s the full quote:

I’m ready to make a historic compromise, not because Israel occupies a foreign land. The people of Israel are not occupiers in the land of Israel. History, archaeology and common sense all make clear that we have had a singular attachment to this land for over 3,000 years. I want peace because I want to create a better future for my people, but it must be a genuine peace–one that is anchored in mutual recognition and enduring security arrangements–rock solid security arrangements on the ground, because you see, Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on our borders for which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel, and these sobering experiences heightens Israel’s security concerns regarding potential territorial concessions in the future.

So, the lands is ours and maybe someday we’ll give the Palestinians a tiny bit if all of our conditions are met. That, in the Netanyahu dictionary, is “historical compromise.”

But Bibi did present his ideas of peace. Well, not exactly his idea. He stole the idea from his foreign minister, the far-right leader of the proto-fascist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has proposed, on several occasions, that Israel seek peace with the so-called “moderate Arab states” and then pursue an agreement with the Palestinians. It is, of course, a non-starter, as absurd as closing one’s eyes and believing the conflict will simply go away. But this is what passes for diplomacy in Bibi’s speech to the United Nations.

As with Abbas, Bibi was primarily speaking to his audience at home, both in Israel and in the United States. Abbas, however, won points at home, perhaps enough to compensate for the distaste his use of the term “genocide” evoked elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu’s speech did much for anyone in Israel. It was a mere recycling of what have become clichés, and, while he did display his characteristic obstinacy, Bibi didn’t come across even as forceful as he has in other major speeches.

One point Netanyahu made has so far escaped notice, but in light of recent events bears scrutiny. He said that “…as prime minister of Israel, I’m entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring the future of the Jewish people and the future of the Jewish state.”

Now, as protests became angrier over the summer, the inevitable, though generally isolated, incidents of anti-Semitism were often, and quite intentionally blended in analyses by defenders of Israel’s massive military campaign. The refrain, heard over and over, was that Jews should not be held accountable for Israel’s actions.

I agree completely. But the flip side of that is that Israel does not represent world Jewry. If a Jew in the US or France or Australia or Iran wants Israel to represent her, she should accept Israeli citizenship and move there. Netanyahu is quite correct that part of the job description of prime minister of any country is the security and well-being of that country’s citizens. But he is no more entrusted with my future, or the future of any other non-Israeli Jew, no matter how strong their Zionism may be, than David Cameron is responsible for Brits who have become citizens of other countries, or Angela Merkel is for German-Americans. They are all responsible for their citizens.

Indeed, the point is even stronger with Israel, which offers automatic citizenship to any Jew who emigrates there. Being of Jewish descent is sufficient to trigger that offer, something no other nation-state offers to descendants of its nation who are citizens of other states.

People can’t have it both ways. If they want to consider themselves Israelis and therefore have Netanyahu take responsibility for their well-being, then they are also responsible as any Israeli citizen is for their country’s actions. Most of us in the global, non-Israeli Jewish community do not want that responsibility, and so we are represented by the governments of our countries. Netanyahu should therefore worry about Israelis—and he’d do well to pay attention to ALL of his citizens and not just the Jewish ones—rather than trying to usurp responsibility for the Jews who didn’t elect him.

Obama met with Netanyahu two days after his UN address. At virtually the same time, the Israeli government was giving final approval to a new settlement in East Jerusalem that is widely understood to be the final nail in the coffin of the long-dead peace process. Between Obama’s barely a mention of Israel-Palestine, Abbas’ much more confrontational tone, and Netanyahu’s mantras, there was little hope left for the near future. If ever there was a time for powerful international intervention it is now. But with Abbas having announced a proposed Security Council resolution calling for Israel to end its occupation in 2016, and the United States having already signaled it would veto any such resolution, that doesn’t seem likely.

A Poison Pill For AIPAC

Today, I’m asking my readers to please support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group has been working hard on some new legislation and it’s really important to help get this bill to the floor of the Senate and the House.

According to a report in Buzzfeed, AIPAC has been working with congressional staff members for months on the bill, trying to find the formula for success. The bill would “…aim to prevent U.S. companies from participating in the (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) campaign without infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights to political speech. It would also try to make the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the U.S. and E.U. conditional on whether the E.U. takes action to stop BDS.”

And how would they prevent US companies from participating in BDS? By “…authorizing states and local governments to divest from companies deemed to be participating in BDS,” and by denying “…federal contracts to such companies.” This bill should be at the top of the agenda for American activists in the United States who wish to see our country change its policies towards Israel and Palestine.

AIPAC hasn’t been doing very well of late. Their attempt to weasel a provision into another bill that would have allowed Israelis to enter the United States without a visa while Israel refused to make the same arrangement for US citizens raised a lot of hackles on Capitol Hill, even in some offices that are very AIPAC-friendly. The proposed provision was killed. AIPAC was unable to sway the Senate against the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Nor has it been able to significantly impact the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

There have been a lot of failures lately, including the failure to get Congress to push hard for an attack on Syria last year. But this bill, if it ever reaches the floor, could be the biggest bust of all, with some serious ramifications for the powerful lobbying group.

Let’s just start with the First Amendment issues this raises. If this bill ever sees the light of day, AIPAC is going to try to convince people that it is similar to the laws passed forty years ago in response to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Put simply, it isn’t.

Those laws–the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act (EAA) and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act (TRA)–were drawn up narrowly, to apply only in the case of abetting or cooperating with a boycott directed at Israel by other countries. The mentions of boycott “by a foreign nation” or similar words are so frequent that the meaning cannot be missed. This is no surprise, of course; Congress is loath to dictate to US businesses, and it is especially tricky where a national interest is not clearly and immediately at stake. So these laws were contrived so that they only barred supporting boycotts by foreign countries against Israel.

In the case of BDS, no government is running this program, not even the pseudo-governments of the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has not endorsed boycotts of Israel and is, itself, completely incapable of boycotting Israeli goods and services. It is in most ways a captive market to Israel. Hamas has, frankly, paid little attention to such measures, though they have encouraged them rhetorically from time to time.

There is a call for BDS from Palestinian civil society, but that is not covered by the 1970s laws. Moreover, any law that would target BDS would need to be constructed in such a way so that it would not have made boycotts of Apartheid South Africa illegal. Those boycotts also came in response to a call from the African National Congress. If businesses could not engage in such activities, there would be great outrage.

So the Arab League boycott is moot as a basis for anti-BDS legislation. The right to boycott is also not limited by what the government decides is an acceptable boycott and what is not. People, and businesses, are free to choose with whom they will do business. Congress making such decisions violates the very essence of the First Amendment, and it is highly unlikely that such a law could pass as a result and, if it could, even less likely that it could withstand legal challenges.

The bit about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is even more toxic. The point of TTIP is to make international trade between the United States and European Union easier, to reduce tariffs and lessen bureaucracy. The idea is to significantly improve the speed, and thus the volume and value, of trade between the two economic giants. Adding stipulations like ensuring that EU states are working against BDS is precisely what TTIP is designed to avoid. Whatever my own objections to TTIP (and they are many), it clearly holds great appeal for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is one thing for US citizens with influence in Washington to go along with the powerful lobbying forces defending Israel’s ability to act with impunity in the region; for the most part, that has not had a negative effect on trade. But this would be a very different matter. Now we are talking about AIPAC going up against powerful, domestic business interests. That is a whole new ballgame.

Even bringing the bill to the floor would demonstrate in a clearer way than ever before that AIPAC is willing to compromise US commercial interests and even one of the most cherished and basic freedoms the US prides itself on for the sake of Israeli interests.

Consider also that the overwhelming majority of boycott actions, divestment decisions and even popular proposals for sanctions against Israel have focused squarely on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They have not targeted Israel as a whole, with the exception of some of the attempts at cultural and academic boycott. But these are not major concerns for Israel nor do they have the same impact potential as economic boycotts and divestment. So, the threat to free speech and to international trade that this bill represents would be demonstrably in the service of the settlement enterprise, the siege of Gaza and the occupation regime more generally. The mask would be off.

In reality, I very much doubt any such legislation is ever going to move forward, at least not from AIPAC. They know the problems as well as anyone and, while I don’t doubt that they are working constantly with their closest friends in Congress to see if something could work, I don’t think they’ll be successful. But if you want to see AIPAC suffer major damage, such a bill would do it. I can’t think of a better strategy to oppose AIPAC than to do everything we can to make sure this sort of doomed anti-BDS legislation hits the floor in Congress with a resounding thud.