Trump Betrays Israel, Undermines Global Trust in US

When the history of this chaotic period is written, people will doubtless be amazed that, not even four months into his presidency, Donald Trump could have made so many mistakes, done so much wrong, and acted in such legally questionable ways.

It may well be, too, that historians will look back at May 16, 2017 as the day that marked the beginning of the final disgrace of Trump’s presidency. With the revelation that recently dismissed FBI Director James Comey had allegedly recorded and sent to FBI colleagues a memo detailing Trump’s attempt to pressure him into dropping the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Trump’s Russia ties, other matters of grave importance have not gotten the attention they deserve.

Only a day before the Comey memo revelation, in an Oval Office meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, Trump reportedly revealed highly classified intelligence regarding a planned Islamic State terrorist attack against the United States. The information that Trump divulged had apparently not been shared with some of the closest U.S. allies and was “code-worded” information, a particularly high level of classification.

The next morning, it emerged that the information had come from IsraelRead more at LobeLog

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Price of Failure

Once upon a time, it seemed that the Obama Administration had held off opponents in Congress as well as pressure from Israel in order to Khamenei_Rouhani_Ahmadinejad_Iran-620x350press forward with negotiations with Iran. It seemed that President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy was finally bearing fruit and that the United States and Iran were coming to the table with a sense of determination and an understanding that a compromise needed to be reached over Iran’s nuclear program.

These days, the story is different. Almost halfway through the four-month extension period the parties agreed to in July, the possibility of failure is more prominently on people’s minds, despite the fact that significant progress has been made in the talks. Right now, both sides have dug in their heels over the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. Iran wants sufficient latitude to build and power more nuclear reactors on their own, while the United States wants a much more restrictive regime.

Part of the calculus on each side is the cost to the other of the failure of talks. Iran is certainly aware that, along with escalating tensions with Russia, the U.S. is heading into what is sure to be a drawn-out conflict with the Islamic State (IS). The U.S. and its partners would clearly prefer to avoid a new crisis with the Islamic Republic, especially when the they need to work with Iran on battling IS forces, however independently and/or covertly they may do it.

The U.S. certainly recognizes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked a good deal of his political life on eliminating the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. But both sides would be wise to avoid a game of chicken here, where they are gambling that the other side will ultimately be forced to blink first.

On the U.S. side, there are many in Washington who would not be satisfied with anything less than a total Iranian surrender, something the Obama administration is not seeking. Those forces are present in both parties, and, indeed, even if Democrats hold the Senate and win the White House in 2016, those voices are likely to become more prominent as time goes on.

But many believe that on the Iranian side, this is a life-or-death issue politically for the reform-minded Rouhani, and that may not be the case. It is certainly true that conservative forces in Iran, which had been ascendant under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are lying in wait to pounce on Rouhani if he doesn’t manage to work out a deal that removes U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. It is also true that Rouhani deals with a Supreme Leader who is highly skeptical not only of Washington’s sincerity,  but of the kind program Rouhani’s reform-minded allies wish to pursue on the domestic front. Rouhani’s support derives most reliably from an Iranian public  fed up with the failure of the conservatives to improve their lives. He dare not disappoint them.

But if Washington policy-makers believe that this amounts to a political gun to Rouhani’s head, they are mistaken.  In a just-released paper published by the Wilson Center. Farideh Farhi,  the widely quoted Iran expert at the University of Hawaii Manoa (and LobeLog contributor), points out that Rouhani does have options if the negotiations fall apart.

“To be sure, Rouhani will be weakened, in similar ways presidents in other countries with contested political terrains suffer when unable to deliver on key promised policies,”  according to Farhi.

But he will continue to be president for at least another three, if not seven, years. The hardliners will still not have their men at the helm of the executive branch and key cabinet ministries. Given their limited political base for electoral purposes, they will still have to find a way to organize and form coalitions to face a determined alliance of centrists, reformists, and moderate conservatives—the same alliance that helped bring Rouhani to power—in the parliamentary election slotted for early 2016. And, most importantly, Rouhani will still have the vast resources of the Iranian state at his disposal to make economic and social policy and will work with allies to make sure that the next parliament will be more approving of his policies.

Farhi’s point is important. Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily depicted by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. As pointed out in a recent survey of Iranian public opinion we covered earlier in the week, this issue is particularly fraught in Iran. It has been a point of national pride that Iran has refused to bend to Western diktats on its nuclear program, diktats that are seen as hypocritical and biased by most Iranians. That estimate is not an unfair one, given previous demands by the U.S. (and one still insisted upon by Israel and its U.S. supporters) that Iran forgo all uranium enrichment. Such a position would force Iran to depend on the goodwill and cooperation of other countries — Russia, in the first instance — whose reliability in fulfilling commitments may depend on how they perceive their national interest at any given moment.  Other countries are not held to such a standard, a source of considerable resentment across the Iranian political spectrum.

Rouhani has wisely chosen not to challenge the public on this point, but rather commit himself to finding an agreement that would end sanctions while maintaining Iran’s nuclear independence, albeit under a strict international inspection regime. This is far from an impossible dream. The Arms Control Association published a policy brief last month with a very reasonable outline for how just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.

In principle, both sides could live with such an outcome if they can put domestic politics aside. But of course, they cannot.

Still, the consequences of failure must not be ignored. With Barack Obama heading into his final two years as President, it is quite possible, if not probable, that his successor — regardless of party affiliation — will be much less favorable toward a deal with Iran. In that case, we go back to Israeli pressure for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran and escalating tensions as Iran feels more and more besieged by the Washington and its western allies.

Rouhani, for his part, may be able to continue his path of reform and re-engagement with the West, but the failure of these talks would be an unwelcome obstacle, according to Farhi.

Rouhani and his nuclear team have had sufficient domestic support to conduct serious negotiations within the frame of P5+1. But as the nuclear negotiations have made clear, the tortured history of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the history of progress in Iran’s nuclear program itself will not allow the acceptance of just any deal. Failure of talks will kill neither Rouhani’s presidency nor the ‘moderation and prudence’ path he has promised. But it will make his path much more difficult to navigate.

All of this seems to amount to sufficient incentive for the two sides to bring themselves toward the reasonable compromise that both can surely envision. At least, one hopes so.

On Bullying Pro-Palestinian Activists

In his speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Professor Steven Salaita, who was “de-hired” by that school quite suddenly

Megan Marzec, who is facing death threats for calling out Israel's slaughter in Gaza

Megan Marzec, who is facing death threats for calling out Israel’s slaughter in Gaza

after the university’s chancellor faced strong pressure from major donors objecting to Salaita’s tweets about Israel’s massive military campaign in Gaza, issued this warning: “As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom.”

At Ohio University, we recently saw the disturbing reality of the different treatment accorded to pro-Israel, as opposed to pro-Palestinian views which supports Salaita’s statement.

Of course, the treatment of Salaita is, itself, rock-solid evidence of this point. That is especially true since the university’s chancellor, Phyllis Wise, has backed off her initial claim that Salaita’s de-hire was caused not by his views but by the allegedly “uncivil” way he expressed them. She has since admitted that she faced pressure from influential figures around the university, i.e. major donors.

But a report today in Ha’aretz on an incident at Ohio University offers an even clearer view. The president of the student senate at OU, Megan Marzec, used the opportunity of taking the ALS Ice-bucket challenge to make a statement about Gaza. She wore a shirt that urged divestment from Israel, stated that the blood in her bucket (which was, of course, fake) represented the Palestinians that Israel had “murdered and displaced,” and dumped the bucket over her head.

The response from the organized Jewish community on the OU campus was swift and quite typical. Ha’aretz quotes the leader of a pro-Israel campus group, Becky Sebo: “Her video has kind of torn the campus apart. My initial response was complete shock. We’ve never had any BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement on our campus, have always had a very open, welcoming community.” Now, she said, “Jewish students in particular are feeling very singled out by the video. Many Jewish students are feeling concerned about their safety and how other students will respond to these accusations against Israel.”

This hyper-sensitivity represents a complete reversal of reality, among other things. There is not a single report of Jewish students being harassed, much less assaulted, as a result of Marzec’s video. But Marzec herself has drawn death threats and hate mail. So much so that Homeland Security has gotten involved on campus. Of course, the pro-Israel groups, no doubt quite sincerely, condemned and called for an end to such acts. But let us ask the question: who has legitimate reason to fear for their safety?

There are also other dimensions to this story. Consider the words of Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism. “The students who want to present a non-biased pro-Israel view have their work cut out for them because there are going to be a lot of efforts to delegitimize their point of view. I anticipate we’ll see more anti-Israel activities than ever before.”

Just read those words, and the thinking is revealed. “A non-biased pro-Israel view.” That is an obvious oxymoron. If the view is pro-Israel, or if it is pro-Palestinian, it is, by definition, biased. What Segal implies here is that any unbiased view would be pro-Israel and any other conclusion can only come about as the result of bias.

And then there’s this whole argument about “de-legitimizing,” whether it is about Israel or of points of view. The working definition of this “de-legitimization” seems to be centered around any argument against Israeli policies, against Zionism, or against any kind of support for the Palestinians. The point of debate, of argument, is to establish that your view has more merit than the opposing one. That should be encouraged (as, indeed, Jewish tradition does), not feared. And certainly, it must not be stamped down.

The shallow arguments get even better. The Director of the OU’s Hillel (a national Jewish student organization), Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, demonstrated just how far the so-called “pro-Israel community” has departed from Jewish traditions and more universal values of open discussion and debating difficult issues.

“Your video marginalizes and isolates students,” Leshaw wrote in an open letter to Marzec published in The Post. “It makes Jewish parents want to bring their kids back home to the safety of the Jewish suburbs …. you need to step down, and give somebody else the chance to lead our Ohio University student population. Somebody that won’t polarize, or divide, or marginalize, or ‘other,’ or cause hysteria, or make students feel unsafe.”

Leshaw, it must be noted, is far from a conservative voice, and she is, herself, no stranger to criticizing pro-Israel programs. She also strongly disagrees with Marzec’s view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Her call for Marzec to resign as student senate president is “Not because of your politics, but because of your lack of awareness, compassion, and mostly, because of your lack of vision.”

Let’s unpack Rabbi Leshaw’s thinking. Just how does Marzec’s video “marginalize and isolate students?” She presents a political statement, at a time when the Israeli military was acting in so brutal a manner that even their American colleagues, who are themselves quite familiar with killing civilians, were shocked. One wonders: If someone had done the exact same video during Russia’s aggression against Chechnya 15 years ago, would anyone have been concerned that Russian students were marginalized and isolated? Of course not, mostly because they wouldn’t have been and because everyone would have been applauding the strong statements against the massive damage being done to civilians, and rightly so.

Marzec’s video, Rabbi Leshaw says, “…makes Jewish parents want to bring their kids back home to the safety of the Jewish suburbs?” That is a familiar and tired argument, one that got badly worn out during the battles for school integration and during the civil rights movement. Just substitute “White” for Jewish, and the sentence says the very same thing. It is irrational fear of the other, something that needs to be confronted, not accommodated.

Rabbi Leshaw also says that Megan’s video makes “alumni want to pull their funding.” I wonder if she thought about that complaint before putting it in her letter. An apparently liberal woman believes that donors should have the ability to stop students from making controversial political statements? Would she have said the same about protests against the Vietnam War or for women’s rights back in the 1960s and 70s? Because surely there were those alumni who took similar offense to bra-burning demonstrations back then. No, it is only opposition to Israeli policies that merits such kowtowing, I suspect.

Rabbi Leshaw also says that Megan’s video “makes people threaten” the university and its programs, a disturbing echo of Israel’s self-serving and unsellable (outside of the US and Israel, that is) claim that all those Palestinian deaths were Hamas’ fault. Defying such bullying is why Rabbi Leshaw thinks Marzec should step down, rather than seeing it for what it is: precisely the sort of action that a student leader must take if they are to ever be leaders for social change outside the university. The same would be true if this was a pro-Israel statement. Those who support Israel’s policies or feel they must defend Israel should also not give in to any attempts to intimidate them into silence. It is not the opinion that matters, and on that point, Rabbi Leshaw claims to agree. So would she have the same objections if the issue was not Israel? Given her professed values, it seems doubtful.

Megan Marzac sees the Israeli occupation and then the shockingly brutal onslaught on Gaza. She believes that these should be opposed and future incidents prevented, and believes that the global Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement is the best way to achieve that. She lacks neither awareness nor compassion. Her statement was one of condemnation of repeated and ongoing human rights violations. That demonstrates considerable awareness and compassion, whether you agree with her views or not.

Is it Marzac’s lack of vision then? Well, it is fair to say that her identification as student senate president gives the impression that she was doing this with some sort of sanction from the senate, which apparently was not the case. That’s an error, but such a mistake is hardly grounds for her removal, especially since she subsequently made it clear that this was her own action.

In any case, the notion that strong support for the Palestinians and even harsh criticism of Israel is somehow threatening to Jews has to be challenged. It is a false accusation, but more importantly, it is one in a long list of bullying tactics that seek to silence support for the Palestinians on campus and more broadly, in the public discourse. Those tactics include attempts to legislate against boycotts of Israel (all of which have failed thus far), manipulating organizations by threatening their funding, harassing media outlets when they give space for pro-Palestinian views, and claiming victimhood when they themselves are the victimizer.

Megan Marzac did what student activists should do: she made a bold statement. The response from the allegedly pro-Israel community has been nothing short of the worst kind of bullying, even aside from the extremists who have threatened her with physical harm. Do these people believe that Israel’s case is so weak that it cannot withstand public debate? It seems so, but that is only true because they are making the wrong argument. They are working to make Israel an exception to international laws of war, and supporting Israel’s regular violation of Palestinian rights through Israel’s occupation regime (as thoroughly documented by many Israeli human rights groups like B’TselemYesh DinGisha and others). These so-called pro-Israel activists are trying to defend Israeli military actions that regularly kill far more civilians than combatants, leave infrastructure devastated and make already impoverished people even more desperate.

What if they tried making the honest case that what is really needed is, quite simply, equal rights for all and a homeland where Jews and Palestinians can flee to if they are facing persecution and where both peoples can express and live their national identity, in whatever political configuration? Maybe then they wouldn’t resort to bullying tactics because they’re so terrified of an honest, open discussion in the public arena.

Israel-Palestine Without A Peace Process

In the past, people have speculated about what Israel and the Occupied Territories would look like if the United States stopped trying to broker the mythical kind of solution that the Oslo process envisioned. Well, now we have an example.

The most radically right-wing government in Israel’s brief history was simply waiting for an opportunity to deliver the most intense and widespread blow to the West Bank. The kidnapping of three young Israelis provided that opportunity and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized it with a vengeance. Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the “peace process” and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.

On the Palestinian side, the fundamental lack of strategy has become ever more apparent. Ditching the US-brokered process has been, for a very long time, the right move, but sloughing it off in a half-hearted way and without a substitute was unconscionably foolish. That’s especially true when you consider how much time there was to devise an alternative strategy to the US-brokered process over so many years. The result is that the Palestinian unity agreement was imperiled before it was signed by the essential incompatibility of the strategies and ideologies of Fatah and Hamas.

This is being played out on a daily basis now: Abbas appears not only weak, but like a traitor as he cooperates with Netanyahu in this massive operation that has yielded nothing with regard to the three kidnapped Israelis but has resulted in hundreds of arrested Palestinians without cause, disruption of work, school and health services throughout the West Bank, hundreds of injuries and, to date, five deaths. Hamas is fanning the flames of anger while denouncing Abbas for his quisling behavior, but it also offers no alternative, unless one foolhardily believes that yet another intifada is going to soften Israeli stances. The last intifada may have shaken up Israelis, and certainly resulted in numerous deaths and injuries in Israel, but it did no harm to Israel’s stability while killing and harming a great many Palestinians. In fact, it only hardened Israel’s positions and worsened conditions for the Palestinians. This suggests that violence, on top of being deplorable, is a foolish course for the Palestinians.

For his part, Netanyahu is playing this to the hilt. It is far from certain that Hamas, as an organization, is responsible for the kidnapping. Right now, it seems much more likely that this was a small group whose members might also have been members of Hamas, but were not acting in concert with the organization. Netanyahu, however, insists he has “unequivocal” proof that Hamas was responsible. The credibility of that claim erodes with each passing day that Bibi refuses to offer evidence for his claim.

Netanyahu’s brand of politics, like most right-wingers, functions best when the country he runs is either angry, scared, or better yet, both. The current situation creates such an atmosphere. The problem will come when and if the tension in the West Bank boils over. And that problem is going to be one that neither the United States nor much of the rest of the world will be able to ignore. They will have to choose a side.

In looking at where we’re headed right now, we must start by understanding that the US is not removed from these events. While the Obama administration has decided to take a “pause” from this conflict and certainly has other matters like Iraq and the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to occupy its time, it is still Israel’s benefactor, providing arms and, quite likely, the omnipresent protective veto in the UN Security Council. So, the US is still there, whether it wants to be or not.

It will also be drawn further in if the Palestinian Authority collapses and violence in the West Bank is renewed. This seems very much to be the direction Israel is pressing matters towards. If that is the case, then it also stands to reason that the Israeli government intends to annex some part of the West Bank, using the violence as a pretext. Israel, especially given its budgetary constraints these days, is certainly not prepared to supplant the Palestinian Authority in administering the West Bank. The remainder of the West Bank would be surrounded by “Israel” and would be easily contained. From there, local councils or some such arrangements are probably what is envisioned for the lands Israel decides to leave to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu and his cohorts like Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon are gambling that the violence of a third intifada will be enough to convince key governments — particularly, the US, UK and Germany — to tolerate the annexation. By “tolerate” I mean that they would object and “refuse to recognize” the action, much as they have with East Jerusalem, but would take no other action.

That is a huge gamble. It is far from certain that even the United States would acquiesce to such actions, and less so that Britain and Germany would. Even if they did, there would surely be a great uproar from other countries, in Europe and throughout the Muslim world, as well as from Russia, France and China. Even governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are largely indifferent to the Palestinians’ plight would be unable to stay silent.

But the gambit has a few things working in Bibi’s favor as well. First, as much as the Israeli de facto annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 outraged many, the reality of the whole city functioning as an “undivided” capital, however restlessly, has survived for over three decades since then. And that’s Jerusalem, the hottest of hotspots in this conflict. Netanyahu surely reasons that if Jerusalem didn’t start a war, there’s a good chance that annexing the Jordan Valley in a similar manner won’t either.

Moreover, the timing is very good for the annexationists. Not only are all eyes on Iraq with a few still lingering over Ukraine, but the specter of ISIS has renewed the sense of fright that the West feels toward Arabs. These will combine, Bibi surely hopes, to encourage a similar clucking of tongues while doing nothing that has greeted the excesses, both pre- and post-election, of the al-Sisi government in Egypt. Netanyahu’s assessment that he can take an outrageous step and get away with it is thus not without recent precedent. The annexation vision, if that is what Bibi is pursuing, would require years of violence to set the stage for it, or at least many months of intense fighting and bloodshed on both sides (though, as always, the Palestinians will bleed a lot more than Israel).

Abbas, however unwittingly, is helping that process along by working with Israel. Netanyahu is not allowing the Palestinian forces to do much of anything in the current operation, but Abbas is also doing nothing to support his own people. Hamas’ strategy isn’t entirely clear yet, but its obviously trying to capitalize on the Palestinian rage that fuels its support. In Hamas’ view, escalating violence plays into its basic strategy of confrontation rather than collaboration. But the question of whether or not Hamas actually has some endgame vision of how it can make any headway against the might of Israel’s forces, let alone triumph, remains yet to be answered.

So, this is what Israel-Palestine looks like without a sham peace process. Does that mean the sham is preferable? Is it better to have a normalized occupation, with all the banality of its entrenched administration and gradual assimilation of more and more Palestinian land into Israel; or is a possibly long period of bloodshed preferable? Only Israelis and Palestinians can answer that question. That said, the shameful behavior of the US, the international community, the Quartet, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership has left few other options.

Israelis can alter this situation, of course, any time they want by electing a government that wants to make a peace deal. Palestinians can also affect change by developing, organizing and executing a strategy that wins them both attention and increased support in the international arena. At this point, however, both sides seem unwilling and unable to take these paths, which increases the odds of Israel-Palestine spiraling back into extreme violence.

How to Save Ukraine: Why Russia Is Not the Real Problem

Dear readers,

This is not something I do very often. The discourse, everywhere I look, surrounding Ukraine is so remarkably one-sided and shallow. I see this among supporters of current US/EU policy and critics. So, when I find an article that is reasonably sensible and useful, I feel a need to spread the word.

This piece, surprisingly enough, was in Foreign Affairs. It comes from an approach I don’t share, and the recommendations and point of view of it do not entirely reflect mine, though I agree with a good chunk of it. But understanding that a lot of what is happening in Ukraine is, in the last analysis, Ukrainian is a point that is routinely lost in the media, among policymakers and among both supporters and critics of US/EU/NATO or Russian policy. Thus I am sharing a link to the article, by Keith Darden. You needn’t agree with his worldview or conclusions to learn a lot from it. Please check it out.

UPDATE: The New York Times kindly demonstrates precisely what I’m talking about with this atrocious piece of drivel passing for “coverage” of today’s events in Eastern Ukraine. No consciousness whatsoever that there is a real split among Ukrainians, a country that has always had serious nationalist divides. No, it’s all about Russian meddling, which, though certainly real, has been balanced all along by meddling from NATO, the EU and US. In both cases, however, the outside meddling is far from the whole story, or even the root cause. That is native Ukrainian.

Perhaps the most pathetic part of the Times’ blatant propagandizing is this: “(The Ukrainian army) faced not only the civilians, but behind them a force of well-armed men in unmarked green uniforms who Western governments said are either Russian soldiers or Russian-equipped militants. These soldiers were well-armed. They carried radios and ammunition pouches. Some had rocket-propelled grenade launchers slung over their soldiers.” (emphasis mine)

Leaving aside how poorly written that paragraph is, the propagandizing here is just so shameless. Radios? Ammunition pouches? This is supposed to be the hi-tech equipment that proves the militants are Russian-backed? Hell, would we even want to think about how many grenade launchers are in private hands in the more remote areas of Montana or Texas? Please.

I wonder if this is what it was like to read about Russian issues in the 1950s. McCarthy would surely have been pleased in any case.