John Kerry’s Accomplishment

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State John Kerry. (Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

Many thought that in taking on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Secretary of State John Kerry was embarking on a fool’s errand. But after investing significant time, effort and his own reputation in the process, he was able to bring the parties to the table last week. By achieving that result, Kerry confounded the doubters, at least in the short run. The renewal of talks — even to talk about the talks — is a meaningful success.

One of Kerry’s jobs in the upcoming negotiations — and that of his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk — is to fill the cracks separating the Israeli and Palestinian positions. The Palestinians, for example, want to talk about borders before anything else, while Israel wants to handle all issues at the same time. Kerry reportedly bridged the gap by assuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the U.S. views the 1967 lines as the basis for border talks.

Under Kerry’s careful guidance, it was good to see that there was some flexibility on both sides. Israel bent on its position of no preconditions when it agreed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. At the same time, Israel has not agreed to freeze the building of settlements, a key Palestinian demand that led to the collapse of previous talks in 2010.

We hope that the negotiations will set off a spirit of cooperation between the parties. Even symbolic acts can build relations and trust, such as the meeting at the Knesset last week between Palestinian officials and Israeli legislators, where the flags of Israel and Palestine were placed side by side. That meeting was a first for the Knesset and was encouraging.

But there are always reminders of how tenuous the chances for agreement are. When Abbas
declared he “would not see the presence of a single Israeli” in a future Palestinian state, violating Kerry’s wish to keep the terms of the talks under wraps, he painted a stark and disturbing picture of an ethnically clean Palestine in marked contrast to a more welcoming Israel, where its large Palestinian minority has citizenship.

Kerry reportedly told journalists that he was in a hurry to start negotiations to avoid a “train wreck” at the U.N. in the fall, in which the Palestinians would turn to the international community to impose solutions and punish Israel rather than reach a negotiated settlement. We hope that Israel and the Palestinians agree, but it may fall to the secretary to see that they do. And, to the surprise of many, Kerry seems both interested in and capable of bringing the two sides forward. All through the process, however, Kerry has been careful to keep expectations low. His call for results in nine months is consistent with that approach, and it takes immediate pressure off the negotiations.

Whether the parties will be able to accomplish anything meaningful by next spring is unclear. But even if a full agreement is out of their reach, a partial agreement could still improve relations and help address some of the difficult issues that divide the two sides. In that respect, the process alone has real value. And so long as the two sides are talking, it’s to the good.

For what he has accomplished thus far, we give Kerry a guarded thumbs-up. We hope we can give him a full, celebratory high-five in the not-too-distant future.

‘Everyone’s Rabbis’

Rabbi David Lau (left) and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (Lau: Wikimedia Commons; Yosef: Moti Milrod/YitzhakYosef.net)

Rabbi David Lau (left) and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (Lau: Wikimedia Commons; Yosef: Moti Milrod/YitzhakYosef.net)

The recent election in Israel of Rabbi David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as Sephardi chief rabbi, may seem like a victory for the status quo. Indeed, many assume that the new chief rabbis are unlikely to make any meaningful changes in the Rabbinate’s approach and attitude toward the increasing number of Jews in the Diaspora, who are not ultra-Orthodox and who feel shut out of  Israel’s Judaism.

Rabbis Yosef and Lau, who were elected to 10-year terms by a body of 150 state-salaried religious functionaries, have familiar names.  Both are sons of previous chief rabbis. Their legacy selections represent a victory for haredi Judaism and its political allies, including the Shas party.  In winning the Chief Rabbi position, Rabbi Lau, favored by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, prevailed against centrist Orthodox Rabbi David Stav, who was the preferred candidate by Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

The chief rabbis head Israel’s far-reaching religious bureaucracy, and are the state’s spokesmen for Judaism. Beyond the ceremonial aspects of their positions, the power the chief rabbis wield on issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce and conversion, is significant.  The Rabbinate’s existing policy on such personal status issues, and its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of or share authority with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, has aggravated a great number of Jews in the Diaspora, who believe this approach is insular and works against their more inclusive approach to Jewish life and observance.

After their victory, Rabbis Yosef and Lau both promised to be “everyone’s rabbi.” That sounds good. However, it would mean that things need to change pretty dramatically. It appears that any changes on issues of personal status in the coming years are not likely to be accomplished solely through the Chief Rabbinate. Instead, these issues will have to be addressed politically and socially, as well. As we have seen with the recent military draft-reform legislation, even changes with popular support in the political realm face an uphill fight if attempted without the buy-in of the Rabbinate.

The election results, and the prospects for change in the future, shine a light on the tensions that arise as a result of the political role of religion in the secular world of governance. This is a serious issue, which the new chief rabbis are going to have to address.

Still, the elections are only days old. We hope that this new generation of chief rabbis will work to address the growing gap between the haredi population and the rest of Israeli society, and will focus upon the gap with the rest of world Jewry, which calls Israel its spiritual home.

HIAS In Search Of A Mission

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Reflecting its new motto, “Protect the Refugee,” HIAS is helping refugees in Chad. (Courtesy HIAS)

HIAS, once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is looking for a new purpose. Founded in New York at the turn of the 20th century, the organization was created to assist with the resettlement of Jewish immigrants who needed help getting acclimated to their new homes. The organization thrived through its first half-century and experienced a revival, which invested it with new purpose, in the 1980s and 1990s, when HIAS helped absorb and resettle hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled the Former Soviet Union.

Since then, the Jewish world has experienced unprecedented change: There are virtually no more Jewish refugees. Rather than being held against their will in one place and expelled from another, virtually every Jew today has freedom of movement, and the vast majority of Jews live in democratic societies. The era of the wandering Jew is over.

This raises the question: Is there still a need for HIAS? We are not so sure.

We do know that there is no need for an agency with the Jewish resettlement mission of the early 1900s. And the current leadership of HIAS knows that, too. So, HIAS is planning to shift its focus from Jewish immigrant aid in North America to broader refugee care and resettlement overseas. According to reports from HIAS, the agency is planning to take its resettlement expertise and infrastructure across the ocean and apply those skills to the many millions of non-Jewish refugees who could benefit from them. Under this new approach, the HIAS name would live on, and it is hoped that the newly focused organization would be supported by Jews and others as a universal cause in favor of world immigrant resettlement.

HIAS has other choices.

There are some highly active and successful organizations, such as the Avi Chai foundation, that have a built-in sunset timetable. Among other things, sunset provisions stem from the recognition that missions change and that organizations lose effectiveness over time. But it takes a certain maturity and healthy doses of self-confidence and self-awareness for an organization to declare success and move on. Very few organizations are able to do that. Instead, they get caught up in their own stories and start believing their own PR, and they view themselves as indispensable societal contributors.

HIAS has had its successes. It served well for close to a century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now its leadership acknowledges that the organization’s original mission is no longer necessary. Rather than search for a new mission in order to justify its continued existence, perhaps it would be better for HIAS to consider an orderly sunset.

When Friends Leak

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. (State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom)

There is an old political adage: “There are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, only interests.” While it is unquestionably true that the U.S.-Israel relationship is rock solid, and that the United States and Israel share a deep friendship and a thick web of interests, there appears to be one or more people at the Pentagon who decided that it would be in America’s interest to leak that it was Israel that launched an air strike against a Syrian arms depot near the city of Latakia on July 5.

Israel has not commented on whether it was behind the attack, which targeted a delivery of Russian-made advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. Israel’s policy is to keep silent on clandestine attacks. But Israel has repeatedly stated that it would do what is necessary to prevent weapons from falling into Hezbollah’s hands. The Yakhont missiles, which were the target of the July 5 attack, could threaten both Israeli and American ships in the Mediterranean.

Israel is a U.S. ally and friend, and everyone at the Pentagon understands how volatile the current situation in Syria really is. So why would “three unnamed U.S. officials” point a finger at Israel, and identify her as the July 5 actor, even though Syria appears largely content to remain relatively silent about the event, and apparently willing to let the pinpoint attacks go unattributed?

A number of theories were circulating this week: One said that the leak was intentional, and was used as a warning to Prime Minister Netanyahu against his renewed belligerent talk about Iran. Another was that it was a way to punish Binyamin Netanyahu for being uncooperative in a U.S. court case against a Chinese bank. And yet another theory claimed that the leak was either a stupid or careless mistake at one or both sides of the relationship.

We don’t know.

But we do know that this wasn’t the first instance of a leak by a U.S. source that disclosed Israeli military information. Less than two months ago, in May, the U.S. apologized after a Pentagon source leaked that Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria against a shipment of Iranian-made weapons. Israel was silent after that leak, as well.

Regardless of the reasons for the leaks, they must stop. They hardly advance the U.S.’s image, and they certainly don’t serve Israeli interests. Besides, even in the warped world of international diplomacy, good friends are supposed to support one another, especially when one has the other’s back.

Mandela’s Rise Above Resentment

Former South African President Nelson Mandela is in critical condition. (BARBARA KINNEY/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

Former South African President Nelson Mandela is in critical condition.
(BARBARA KINNEY/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

As we go to press, Nelson Mandela is in critical condition in a Pretoria, South Africa hospital. He is the subject of much discussion and admiration. World leaders, including President Barack Obama, are jockeying for a final opportunity to visit with him.

It is difficult to think of Mandela without trying to identify another world leader to compare him with. But such comparisons tend to come up short. Like Mandela, Natan Sharansky derives much of his moral influence from having been imprisoned by a hated regime and emerging unbent and optimistic. Although both men entered politics, Mandela was omnipresent in the new South Africa, and Sharansky remains one voice — albeit a strong and influential one — among many in the cacophony of Israeli politics.

After Mandela left prison in 1999, he was criticized for embracing Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro, a trio of autocrats who were the antithesis of the liberal democracy Mandela said he wanted to build. But Mandela said that the three were among the few who had championed his cause during the dark years of his anti-apartheid struggle, and he said that he owed allegiance to them. While his loyalty to those who supported him is impressive, his support for three notorious bad guys has always been a tough pill to swallow. Even so, consistent with his uncanny ability to reinvent himself in new roles, Mandela moved on from the thugs and became a reliable ally of liberal democracies.

Nelson Mandela has been lauded around the world for his almost singular ability to turn oppression and incarceration into sweet, not bitter, fruit. Resentment, he said, “is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.” While he unquestionably harbored resentment, he seized the opportunity to lead South Africa in a new direction and was successful.

In this, his impact and accomplishments are of a different type than that of leaders of even larger, more powerful countries. In some ways, including his self-imposed term limit on his presidency, despite having no serious political competition, Mandela’s  legacy most resembles the first president of another divided, squabbling nation at the edge of a continent. With not much more than his character, moral suasion, leadership ability and a knack for the theatrical, George Washington set down the blueprint for a United States that we can still recognize. So, too, Mandela in South Africa.

In these days of Mandela’s illness, it has become a little easier to see the kind of person and leader it takes to be the father of a country.