Netanyahu Chooses Trump Over U.S. Jews…Again

On Saturday, Robert Bowers, a right-wing gunman strode into a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh and began shooting. When he was finished, he’d murdered 11 people.

Donald Trump led the quick march to bizarrely defend one of the most prominent U.S. cult symbols, the gun, by blaming the synagogue itself for not having an armed guard at the synagogue, as if such a guard would have fared better than the three Pittsburgh police officer that Bowers shot.

Trump later blamed the media for violent attacks, saying, “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news.” That was to be expected, given the increasing attention to Trump’s own lengthy history of anti-Semitic dog-whistling and the scrutiny it was finally coming under in the wake of the terrorist attack in Squirrel Hill.

But the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history was not going to remain a domestic issue for very long. Given the disdain the government of Israel has been showing to the U.S. Jewish community for so long now, it was difficult to imagine that Israel’s response to the Squirrel Hill massacre would be positive. But few could have anticipated its cynical and opportunistic response. Read more at LobeLog

As a Jew, This Makes Me Angry

An edited version of this article originally appeared at LobeLog.

A protester from Code Pink outside the National Leadership Assembly for Israel.

A protester from Code Pink outside the National Leadership Assembly for Israel.

On Monday, I attended the National Leadership Assembly for Israel. The gathering was more than a little disquieting.

The names in attendance were big ones. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, House Speaker John Boehner, Former Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, current Chairman Ed Royce, Senator Ben Cardin, Ambassador Dennis Stephens of Canada, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer as well as leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COPJ), AIPAC, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and others all spoke. One of the most troubling aspects of it was that they mostly all had the same thing to say.

Some speakers went farther than others. Paul De Vries, the evangelical preacher and president of the New York Divinity School, called Hamas “evil” and said that ISIS was Hamas’ “twin.” While most statements were not that stark, every speaker placed full blame for all the casualties in Gaza on Hamas. Israel was defended completely uncritically, with not a hint from anyone that maybe, just maybe, the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children might mean that Israel is not quite taking enough care to avoid harming civilians. Continue reading

Israel Lobby Galvanises Support for Gaza War

My report for IPS News on the National Leadership Assembly for Israel, which I attended on Monday. A standing room only gathering of pro-Israel activists coming together to voice their unconditional and uncritical support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

Another AIPAC Miscalculation?

When the history of pro-Israel lobbying in Washington is fully written, it may well be that the push for confrontation with Iran will be seen as a major turning point. On Monday, a consistently hawkish, pro-Israel Democrat, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), withdrew the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s docket. Menendez made the surprise move because a Republican member of the committee, Bob Corker (R-TN), was going to add an amendment intended to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

Judging from news reports in mainstream and far-right outlets, it seems the amendment was Corker’s idea. It would have required the U.S. president, upon reaching a deal with Iran, to submit a report to Congress within three days. Congress would then have a non-binding “vote of disapproval.” But AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, stood by the amendment, and one has to think that Corker would not have introduced it if he knew AIPAC would oppose it. AIPAC eased up on its pressure against negotiations with Iran earlier this year, but it has remained steadfast in its distrust of the diplomatic process, as has, of course, the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. AIPAC’s decision to support the Corker amendment, coupled with a ratcheting up of the rhetoric coming from Netanyahu against the negotiations in recent days, suggests a renewed campaign to derail Obama’s efforts to resolve the dispute with Iran diplomatically.

Perhaps even more notably, this episode marks another step in the increasing polarization of Israel as a domestic U.S. political issue. The Republicans have been working hard ever since Barack Obama got elected to “own” the issue of Israel. In this case, however, they and AIPAC may have overplayed their hand, just as it did at the beginning of the year with S. 1881, when it lined up with Republicans to try to strangle the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between world powers and Iran in its crib.

The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act had already generated some controversy, especially over a provision that would have allowed Israel to participate in the U.S.’ visa waiver program, which would make it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain American visas. The House of Representatives ended up amending the bill to address the initial objections to admitting Israel into that program program. The objection centered on Israel’s unwillingness to reciprocate in granting visas to U.S. citizens, a standard expectation of the program. The bill now addresses this with language that requires Israel to treat U.S. citizens (including Arab Americans) as it wishes the U.S. to treat Israelis and satisfy all other requirements of the visa waiver program. Many believe that other objections, specifically revolving around Israel’s espionage activities in the U.S. (which Israel vehemently denies but are well known in the U.S. intelligence community), are the reason for a recent spate of leaks to Newsweek magazine on the subject.

But aside from that piece, the legislation is a pretty standard piece of pro-Israel fluff, which would provide only a modest, small boost to existing cooperation between the United States and Israel in military, security and scientific arenas. Yet it appears quite possible that AIPAC helped Corker kill it, however unintentionally. Why did that happen?

This seems to have been a miscalculation on AIPAC’s part. If this amendment originated with Corker and not AIPAC, as seems likely, then it was clearly an attempt by the Tennessee Republican to drive a wedge between the “pro-Israel community” and the president. AIPAC backs the idea, but they surely treasure bi-partisan support for their initiatives in Congress much more, as indicated by their decision to back down on S. 1881 in February, especially after it ran up against a solid wall of Democratic opposition. Yet AIPAC has been remarkably passive in the face of Republican efforts to make Israel a partisan issue. Of course, Republicans have gotten a lot of help from Netanyahu (and now his new ambassador, Ron Dermer) on that score in recent years. But the alienation of liberal Democrats from pro-Israel sentiment is growing as a result. This amendment and its result constitute one more step in that direction.

AIPAC, and probably Corker as well, did not expect Menendez to pull a popular pro-Israel bill from the Senate docket. But Menendez appears to have recognized the difficult position this amendment would put Senate Democrats in. They cannot credibly oppose Obama on negotiations with Iran because their constituents support the talks and are deeply opposed to military action against Iran. Once Obama, in his State of the Union Address no less, declared that he was standing firm on negotiating seriously with Iran and then prevailed in the fight over S. 1881, it was clear that most Congressional Democrats would not challenge the president so long as the talks continued. So, if the Corker amendment was brought, Senate Democrats would either have to vote against their president or against AIPAC. Neither prospect held any appeal to Menendez. So he pulled the bill.

In many ways, Menendez and other Senate Democrats who are particularly close to AIPAC just want to keep their heads down for the next two years. If Obama can work out a viable deal with Iran, that’s great. If not, they are probably hoping that a more hawkish leader, like Hillary Clinton, who will be more in line with AIPAC on Middle East policy, will win in 2016. Until then, they are going to have to walk a tightrope.

Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to continue their efforts to “own” the issue. Corker will probably back down on his amendment eventually so that the rest of the bill can go through. But that will mean that the Republicans can claim that Menendez, well-known as among the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, thwarted AIPAC’s plans.

If, as AIPAC surely hopes, the next president, from either party, is more in tune with the Netanyahu government than Obama, then a rightward move of the Israel issue serves it well in the long-term. Indeed, in such a case, AIPAC would probably prefer a Democrat again in the White House, reinforcing the group’s bipartisan image and influence, while Israel gets framed in Washington in a more comfortable way than it is now.

Still, this could backfire. Aggressive Republican efforts to make Israel a partisan issue — and AIPAC’s acquiescence in that strategy — are alienating a lot of Jews and a lot of Democrats. Most of those groups want a secure Israel, to be sure. But they also want to avoid war with Iran and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. AIPAC is working against both of the latter goals.

AIPAC will have no problem keeping Republicans in their camp, unless more radical groups, such as Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and, of course, the Republican Jewish Coalition, that criticized its capitulation on S. 1881 persuade its wealthiest donors to desert it. But Democrats might find it increasingly difficult to toe the AIPAC line, even with a more hawkish figure like Clinton in the White House. AIPAC has come a long way by justifiably touting its bipartisanship. Should “pro-Israel” become a Republican label, however, they stand to lose a great deal in the long run. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Israel’s Next Ambassador to the US: A Jewish Karl Rove

Ron Dermer, the man who is rumored to be the replacement for Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren (who resigned today), has been compared to Karl Rove. The comparison is an apt one.

Oren, an academic who easily slipped into the role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lead US propagandist, projected an image that was a bit friendlier in its Americanism. His academic stature, his experience of having written a best-selling book on the 1967 war that was very well-received in popular circles (less so in more critical academic environments) and his general demeanor was meant to soften the hardline Israeli leader’s image while still representing the Likud’s hawkish views in the US.

Dermer, whose experience is much more imbued in politics, will likely cast a different, more Machiavellian shadow. He is steeped with neoconservative connections, comes from a family that was heavily involved in politics and is undoubtedly reflective of the more hawkish strains even among the Likud. When rumors of his likely appointment first surfaced at the end of 2012, Marsha Cohen wrote this excellent and concise profile of Dermer for LobeLog.

Unlike Oren, Dermer is opposed to a two-state solution, having referred to it as a “childish matter,” though he later backed off the statement. But Dermer, who has long been a political adviser to Netanyahu and his lead speech writer, was also a key figure in arranging the controversial trip to Israel taken by then-Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney prior to last year’s election. In fact, despite his father having been a Democratic mayor in Florida, Dermer’s Republican and neoconservative roots run very deep.

But Dermer understands very well the need to work in a bipartisan fashion as an Israeli representative in Washington. “I haven’t encountered [ideology] as being much of an obstacle. We don’t get into deep conversations about our world views,” Dermer told the Washington newspaper, Politico. “Did Churchill and Roosevelt have a good relationship? You have foreign affairs, and you work together on issues where you agree.”

Also unlike Oren, Dermer is prone to more direct language. When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the self-evident truth that the US Congress is “bought and paid for” by Israel’s lobby, Oren said that “…Unintentionally, perhaps, Friedman has strengthened a dangerous myth.” Dermer, on the other hand, went on the warpath against the Times as a whole, saying the paper, well-known for its long-standing editorial support of Israel but not necessarily its settlements, “…consistently distort(s) the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace. They cavalierly defame our country by suggesting that marginal phenomena condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu and virtually every Israeli official somehow reflects government policy or Israeli society as a whole.”

That is likely to be a good snapshot of the differing styles of Oren and Dermer, the latter being much less inclined to diplo-speak, but with a much keener knowledge of conservative US politics. This will likely to serve him well as Israel becomes more and more a right-wing issue, a shift that Netanyahu embraces. While bi-partisanship remains the byword for pro-Israel lobbying, the money from the Jewish community, which is key and which continues to pour into the political coffers of Democrats, is increasingly coming from Jews who are either Republicans or whose views on Israel break with those of many Democrats. This split among Democrats was laughably visible during the spat at the Democratic National Convention last year over the forced inclusion of a plank in the party platform opposing the division of Jerusalem.

Oren was certainly no bridge-builder. He was sharply critical of the centrist group J Street and feuded with them off and on during his tenure. Dermer will likely be even more disdainful of even the tepid criticism of Israeli policies that J Street offers, much less groups that are more forthright.

But Netanyahu is well aware that the Palestinian issue, despite John Kerry’s many travels, is dropping farther and farther down on the list of US priorities. And the likely appointment of someone like Dermer is further evidence that Netanyahu also is willing to see the US right-wing take more ownership of the pro-Israel agenda, while campaign contributions and the continuing illusion that Jewish money is closely tied to a pro-Israel agenda keeps the Democrats toeing the line.

In the long run, this sort of characterization of the Israeli image is likely to alienate more and more US citizens, including a majority of Jews. But Bibi has never cared much about the long-term view, as the comeuppance will hit Israel long after he has left office. Ron Dermer, who shares a similar outlook, is Bibi’s kind of guy.