Getting Real on the Iran Deal

The debate over the Iran nuclear deal has entered the head-counting phase. By that, we don’t only mean who in Congress has taken a public position. Last week, 341 rabbis announced their support for the agreement, which Congress is expected to vote on next month. Shortly thereafter, a crowdsourced petition appeared online asking for “only ordained rabbis” to register their opposition to the deal. At press time, 768 had done so. And 26 former heads of American Jewish organizations published a full-page ad in The New York Times last week calling on Congress to support the deal.

Where does that leave us? We know that sentiment is strong on both sides of the deal. And we genuinely believe that those who support it and those who oppose it do so in good faith, with the best of intentions. We also respect those who have chosen not to take a position for any number of good reasons. That is why the Reform movement’s decision not to decide comes as something of a respite in the heat of this battle. Acknowledging that “there is no unity of opinion” among their lay and rabbinic leadership, as well as among their members, the heads of four Reform groups — the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Association of Reform Zionists of America — instead stressed, as we did last week when we voiced our opposition to the Iran deal, that the agreement is a reality and the job now is to see that Israel remains strong and that its relationship with the United States is strong as well.

Certainly, part of the answer lies in boosting Israel’s defenses, which both Congress and the administration seem willing to do. So why not move forward with that now? Further, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy “study group” has urged the administration to clarify certain technical matters of the agreement and to address shortcomings to improve its effectiveness, such as making public the penalties it is considering “for various types of small and mid-sized Iranian violations of the agreement.” The group also looked beyond the deal itself, calling for a “resolute regional strategy” to counter “Iranian negative behavior” in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Those too are reasonable steps that the administration can take, even as it argues for the deal. Without that clarification and without push back from other regional actors, the Washington Institute argues that Iran “will be more inclined to test the bounds of the nuclear agreement.” We agree.

It is time for the Obama administration to make clear that the nuclear deal is part of an overall regional problem that requires a developed regional strategy. The deal is not an end in itself. We call on the administration to articulate with clarity its plan and strategy for the post-deal world.

Finding Solvency in American Strategy

In the case of Sokolow v. PLO, a New York federal court jury recently issued an award of $665.5 million in favor of American victims of Palestinian terror and their families. The Palestinian Authority wants to appeal that judgment. In order to do so and avoid efforts to collect on the judgment while the appeal is pending, the P.A. would have to post a bond in the amount of the judgment, plus interest. The organization claims not to have the necessary funds and has asked U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels to allow it to post a lower amount.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken inserted himself and the State Department in the Sokolow case, raising a number of eyebrows in the process. Blinken began by making the understandable point that the P.A.’s continued viability is essential to U.S. security and diplomatic interests and that a worsening of the security situation in the West Bank could have negative repercussions for U.S. allies Israel, Jordan and Egypt. But he then ventured into very troubling waters by urging Daniels to “carefully consider” the risk that a substantial bond would push the P.A. to insolvency. Could it be that the State Department was urging a federal judge to require a lower bond amount from those found guilty by a jury of supporting those who killed Americans in terror attacks?

While it is troubling that Blinken and the State Department would weigh in on the side of the Palestinians in this terror compensation dispute, the
weakness of Blinken’s arguments gives us the most pause. What exactly is the evidence that the admittedly troubled and corrupt P.A. would be wiped out if it was required to post a full bond as normally required in any appeal? Moreover, if, as Blinken states, the ability of victims to recover damages under the Antiterrorism Act advances U.S. security interests, why weaken victims’ efforts and the corresponding American strategy of combating and deterring terrorism?

In any event, the P.A.’s economic argument is suspect. The P.A. is not without its funders. Aside from the billions showered on it by Arab states and the tax revenues forwarded to it by Israel, the United States has over the years provided billions of dollars in assistance to the Palestinians. Time and again, instead of governing its citizenry effectively, it has used donated funds to fuel corruption and support terror. In light of that clear history, the last thing Blinken and the State Department should do is support an approach that will further enable the P.A.’s criminal behavior.

The Day After the Iran Deal

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University.

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University.

Last week, we noted President Barack Obama’s impassioned defense of the nuclear agreement with Iran during a speech at American University and its clear articulation of the president’s vision. That part of the speech was informative and helpful. But along with his arguments, the president repeated what is now the administration’s mantra that “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”

There’s a disconcerting subtext to the way the president, his administration and his supporters go about arguing on behalf of the deal. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens described the president’s “bald certitude” along with “the naked condescending disdain with which he treats his opponents.” It can be heard not only in the way the White House presents the false choice between the Iran deal and war, but also in how supporters decry anyone against the deal, especially Jewish leaders such as Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, as traitors.

One has to wonder: If the deal is so great, why does the administration — from the president and secretary of state on down — have to rely on dire predictions of conflict and the impugning of opponents’ motives? Why not simply lay out the benefits of the deal and the perceived constructive reasons for it and leave the name calling and character assassination out of it?

As the ADL’s new national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, an Obama administration alum, stated regarding the take-no-prisoners tone of the debate in a recent column, the debate over the deal should proceed “on the facts, without engaging in personal attacks on the intent or character of our leaders.”

The day after Greenblatt’s piece appeared, his organization announced its opposition to the deal. We, too, must join the many Jewish organizations in opposing the Iran nuclear agreement. We do so recognizing and respecting all the sensible, thoughtful people who support it. And we state our opposition fully aware that being against the deal isn’t an end in itself.

Those who are against the deal are duty bound to offer some type of alternative, such as having Congress send the deal back to the White House to be rewritten, just as those who are supporting the deal are duty bound to stick to the merits of the debate. But we all also need to be worrying about what will happen the day after the deal is implemented, which despite all the opposition, seems increasingly likely.

There is no doubt that the deal will leave Israel in a more precarious position vis-à-vis Iran and its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian-controlled territories. It is time that those who oppose the deal also devote attention and energy to ensuring that the Jewish state retain its quantitative and qualitative edge, militarily, economically and strategically, in what could very well be a post-deal world.

Talking About Religion

Until Democrat Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1975, the issue of a presidential candidate’s religious faith wasn’t an open topic for discussion. That is clearly not the case today.  In last Thursday’s Republican debate, candidates were asked a silly and wholly inappropriate question: “[Have] any of them … received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first?”

The question, submitted via Facebook but adopted by the panel of questioners, drew largely non-answers from the candidates. But even some of the non-answers made some viewers uncomfortable.  For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker testified to viewers that “it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins,” but went on to say that “God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing. God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day.”

Some will be relieved to hear this. But should the question have been asked in the first place?

We agree with Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance who commented that  “this type of chatter demeans our sacred teachings, exploits the passions of voters of faith and isolates those Americans who do not share a particular concept of the divine.” But nary a whimper was heard from the presidential contenders.

There were other less outrageous instances where religion became the focus of the debate discussion. For example, in what might be called biblically inspired policy, Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, advocated for a flat tax based upon the tithe offering of 10 percent.

And then there was the question asked of Ohio Gov. John Kasich about how he defended expanding Medicaid in his state by “saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.” In his response, Kasich redirected the issue to his objective of making the government program more broadly available for the betterment of all people, arguing that beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion included the mentally ill and drug addicted, who received treatment to keep them out of prison.  He added:  “Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.”

While we say amen to that, we would be much more comfortable keeping God out of the debates.

Three-Dimensional Chess

Sen. Charles Schumer

Sen. Charles Schumer

President Barack Obama presented a polished and impassioned defense last week of the international nuclear agreement with Iran that is being considered by Congress. For those who are trying to understand the agreement and what exactly separates its backers from its bashers, the speech offered a clear view of  the deal’s supporter-in-chief’s vision.

Inside the Beltway, however, Republican minds are already made up. So Obama’s speech at American University put the spotlight on Democrats who hold the key to the deal’s fate. Congress has until late September to vote on the agreement, and the president has promised to veto any attempt to kill it.

But there are signs that political maneuvering has begun. A number of prominent Democrats have announced support of the deal: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) as well as Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.) and Sander Levin (Mich.).

Then on Aug. 6, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) along with U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) said they oppose the deal. Both men are in the top Democratic leadership in their respective houses of Congress and are among the most watched Jewish lawmakers in Washington. Schumer, under heavy pressure from AIPAC and other groups to oppose the deal, certainly sent a strong signal by coming out against it.

Or did he?

Some political watchers see Schumer’s announcement as part of  a game of three-dimensional political chess, in which players can be against something and for it at the same time. “How can a powerful Democrat’s opposition be a good sign [that the deal will survive a vote in Congress]?” James Fallows asks in The Atlantic. “Because it suggests that Schumer has already calculated that the administration can do without his vote.” Schumer can thus assuage his deal-opposing supporters while not damaging his president’s foreign policy objective.

As of now, at least one thing is clear: This game is far from over, and more strategic moves are bound to follow.

A Poll for Everyone

As in any political campaign, Jewish supporters and opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement are promoting the results of opinion polls to support their position. But how reliable are those polls? And why is it that polling results on the same issue are so dramatically different?

One poll, conducted by the liberal group J Street, which supports the agreement, found that supporters outnumber opponents 60 to 40 percent. A second poll, by The Israel Project, which opposes the Iran deal, found American Jews oppose the deal by 47 to 44 percent. A poll by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, which has no political affiliation, found more support than opposition: 48 to 28 percent.

The differing results seem to be based upon what is asked and how the questions are framed. To take an example from each: The TIP poll asked the following question three times: “Now that you have some more information, in your own opinion, do you think that Congress should vote to approve the deal and lift sanctions on Iran or reject the deal and NOT lift sanctions on Iran?” The percentage of those rejecting the deal grew each time the question was asked. Similarly, one question in the J Street poll appeared to add information that could bolster support for the agreement.

In contrast, the Jewish Journal poll asked questions that were straightforward. In one, the words “good idea” and “bad idea” were even rotated to eliminate bias: “In retrospect, was it a (good idea) or a (bad idea) for the U.S. to conduct negotiations with Iran, or are you not sure whether it was a good idea or a bad idea?”

Writing in The Hill, veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman looked at polling of the American electorate on the issue and likewise found that how questions were worded had a dramatic effect on the results. He concluded that while most Americans are likely to support the easing of economic sanctions against Iran in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons development — polls revealing American support of the Iran deal tend to frame the issue this way — when provided with details about the deal and the objections raised, most Americans are just as likely to not trust Iran to uphold its end of the bargain.

“A fair interpretation of the data suggests Americans’ natural inclination is to oppose this deal,” he writes, “though they would support an agreement they believed would accomplish supporters’ goals.”

Those considering the Iran agreement and its merits are well advised to focus on the details of the deal and the merit of the answers to questions that have been raised about it. Once you have reached a conclusion on the merits, it won’t be hard to find a poll that will support that view.

What’s Next for Pollard?

Israelis call for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during President Barack Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in 2013.

Israelis call for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during President Barack Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in 2013.

Thirty years after he was arrested outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, former Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard is expected to be paroled from a federal prison in North Carolina on Nov. 20.

The day of his release may prove to be Pollard’s Rip Van Winkle moment. Although the convicted spy for Israel has not been asleep since 1985, the brash 31-year-old who provided “material that was of such high quality, so accurate and so important to the security of the state,” according to his Israeli handler, is likely to find at 61 that much of the world he knew has changed.

Yet, the deep questions of dual loyalty regarding Pollard’s actions persist. News of his impending release set off volleys of commentary arguing, on one side, that Pollard remains a traitor who damaged the United States and got what he deserved, and on the other side, that the life sentence he received for a single count of spying for a friendly country was grossly disproportionate.

Will these arguments be put to rest once Pollard is a free man? Or will they continue due to the terms of his parole that require him to stay in the United States for the next five years? From published reports, it appears that Pollard wants to make aliyah with his wife, Esther. And it is here that President Barack Obama could show a true act of kindness.

Pollard’s parole after 30 years was pretty much mandated by federal guidelines. So, the fact that the administration didn’t object to the parole decision isn’t major news. Waiving roadblocks that would otherwise prevent Pollard from moving to Israel, however, would be a welcome gesture by the president.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear likely. As much as people are trying to frame the impending release as a humanitarian gesture or a way of placating an Israel angry at the recently concluded nuclear deal with Iran, letting him free but not letting him go to Israel is an incomplete act, and unnecessary.

The sordid Pollard story adds focus to how things have changed between Israel and the United States over the last 30 years. Three decades ago, Israel, though an ally, was mistrusting enough to allow an American analyst with qualms about his nation’s handling of intelligence relating to the Jewish state to betray his own country. But the moves were all covert. Today, the bilateral mistrust has ruptured into open and vehement disagreement over broader policy differences, including the Iran deal.While allowing Pollard to rebuild his life in Israel will not solve any of those issues, it might help decrease the rising tensions between two friends.

Standing Up for the Little Guy

Unlike most entertainers, even the political ones, activism was very much a part of Theodore Bikel’s everyday life. So was his Jewishness and his love of Israel.

He was an activist with a commitment to social justice. Whether it was an insistence that benefit shows be a part of his performance contracts, publicly protesting Chicago police treatment of young demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention or being arrested in 1986 outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington during a Soviet Jewry demonstration, Bikel was a man who acted based upon his political and social conscience.

For Bikel, who passed away July 21 at 91, activism meant liberal activism of the type that agitates on behalf of those most in need of help. As a folk singer, he was a troubadour of the people. As Tevye, he was the personification of the simple Jew. And as the champion of Sholem Aleichem, he carried the voice of the bard of the Yiddish-speaking common folk.

Some would say that Bikel was too committed to his own world view, like when he told Washington Jewish Week arts correspondent Lisa Traiger last fall, “I don’t know any right-wing songs; I don’t know that there are any.” But that was Theodore Bikel — a man who expressed his opinions in brash and certain declarations and practiced exactly what he preached.

We will miss Theodore Bikel. We will miss his clear baritone, his commitment to a better Israel and a better world. We will even miss his schmaltz. “My guitar is the only weapon I care to have,” he would tell audiences. Schmaltzy yes, but you can’t argue with the pure idealism of a man who believed in a personal calling to stand up for the little guy.

You don’t have to agree with the politics of Theodore Bikel to view him as an inspiration.

Signs of Frustration

An EU recommendation played havoc with  Israel’s stock market.

An EU recommendation played havoc with Israel’s stock market.

A European Union think tank last week recommended that the EU restrict its dealings with Israeli banks in order to differentiate Europe’s
relations with Israel from that of the settlements. While the Israeli foreign ministry played down the recommendation and the EU quickly clarified that it had “no intention of imposing restrictions on Israeli banks that do business in the settlements,” the announcement caused panic in Israel’s stock market and sent stocks of Israeli banks tumbling.

That’s how seriously Israel’s financial and economic sectors are taking growing European frustration over lack of progress toward a two-state solution and disapproval of the continued expansion of Israeli settlements. The stock market recovered, but the hypocritical game that the EU is playing goes on. And, frankly, it’s offensive.

Europe’s support of Israel is decidedly mixed. At the Knesset last week, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared: “Italy will always stand for cooperation and never for boycotts, which are stupid and futile.” Yet, the EU favors a plan to label goods produced in the territories as a way to draw an economic Green Line between Israel and the West Bank.

At the same time, trade goes on between Europe and Iran, Egypt and Turkey — all despite dismal human rights records in those countries. Indeed, the ink was hardly dry on the nuclear agreement with Iran when Germany sent an economic delegation to the terror-supporting Islamic republic, plainly in search of new business opportunities. Similarly, in Asia, there are no sanctions on Chinese goods, despite that country’s treatment of its political prisoners, Tibetans and Muslims. And while the bloodletting goes on in Syria, Europe seems to worry more about banking, loans and mortgages in Israeli settlements.

There are plenty of players in the ongoing drama of the Middle East on which the EU could vent its frustration. But it chooses not to do so. Instead, the EU picks on Israel. Why?

We wish we had a plausible answer, but it cannot be denied that Europe insists on applying a double standard in its dealings with the Jewish state. Everyone knows that Israel is not the only player in the ongoing frustration of the Israel-Palestinian dynamic. Yet, instead of Europe trying to bring the two sides closer together, the continents’ policymakers and analysts choose to focus on perceived Israeli intransigence and turn a blind eye to Palestinian abstinence.

Is it any wonder that the search for peace seems to be going nowhere?

How Not to Save Greece

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

This is not the golden age of Greece. After winning a parliamentary election in January by vowing to fight the draconian austerity imposed on his country by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, followed by his successful efforts to defeat a national referendum that included dramatic fiscal compromise, austerity and economic discipline, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was forced last week to accept another harsh bailout and persuade his country’s parliament to back the plan.

It was a case of ideology being trumped by reality. In response to economic crises in southern Europe, the EU has chosen not to stimulate the failing economy out of recession. Instead, in exchange for infusions of cash, Europe, led by powerhouse Germany, has demanded austerity — cutting budgets and raising taxes. In Greece, the result has been widespread poverty. It is this reality that Tsipras and his Syriza party vowed to fight.

By some accounts, the inexperienced politicians of Syriza were outmaneuvered in negotiations by the veteran technocrats in the EU and IMF. They hadn’t counted on the utter implacability of Germany or that smaller countries in the EU would support the status quo rather than a bailout deal that would prop up the Greek economy in order to keep the country in the Eurozone.

In the end, Tsipras got a worse deal than he would have otherwise. The prime minister, who vowed to end Greece’s national humiliation, has left his country in a less advantageous position than the day he was elected. All of which provides a case study in how not to govern: Political leaders are playing with fire when they whip up popular support with visceral, nationalistic pleas that lack substance, as Tsipras did two weeks ago in the run up to the Greek electorate’s rejection of the previous round of austerity measures proposed in a national referendum.

Tragically, the Greeks overwhelmingly did as they were told by their leader and voted down an offered bailout package, which then pushed their country — and their leader — further to the edge of the abyss. The voters’ intended display of nationalistic strength had the opposite effect, magnifying their country’s economic weakness and triggering the harshest austerity measures to date.

Tsipras played with fire and burned not only himself, but the citizens of his country as well. Politicians around the world who have been watching the developments in Greece would do well to remember that those who appeal to the masses with slogans and no substance do so at their peril.