Assessing Palestinian unity

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with the media in Ramallah on April 22, a day before his Fatah party signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas.  (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with the media in Ramallah on April 22, a day before his Fatah party signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)

The agreement reached April 23 by Fatah and Hamas apparently caught both the United States and Israel off guard. But with Israel-Palestinian negotiations sputtering to a disappointing ending last month, the “unity accord” gave everyone something to talk about.

Under their agreement, rival Palestinian groups will form a unity government in five weeks. Since a brief 2007 civil war, Hamas has controlled Gaza, and Fatah has ruled parts of the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority.

In responding to the news, the U.S. and Israel restated why Hamas is an unacceptable negotiating partner: The Islamist group is considered a terrorist organization by both countries, it doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence, and its aim is the destruction of the Jewish state. Any Palestinian government that includes Hamas is therefore unacceptable.

Although Israel and the U.S. issued denunciations, they shaved off the hard edges of complete rejection. Israel “suspended” peace talks, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu held out the possibility of reviving them should the deal with Hamas fall through. And in a contentious cabinet meeting, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is lead negotiator in the peace talks, reportedly persuaded the government to impose “measured sanctions” rather than pursue a nuclear option
that would bring about the Palestinian Authority’s collapse. Perhaps part of the reason why a more measured approach prevailed is because economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority could ultimately hurt Israel’s security by threatening the paychecks of Palestinian security forces whose cooperation is a bright spot in existing bilateral relations.

For its part, the Obama administration is officially “disappointed” in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ embrace of Hamas. And on the Hill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) called for an immediate suspension of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, with other Israel supporters of both parties not far behind.

Yet, as of this writing, nothing has changed on the ground. And it might not.

Perhaps that’s because the announced unity effort has a distinct element of déjà vu: Fatah and Hamas have announced unity agreements before only to scuttle them over turf and ideological differences. Many pundits are betting that will happen again.

Nonetheless, to the optimists, the Fatah-Hamas unity effort may present an opportunity to help the moribund peace effort. Until now, Hamas has always been viewed as the wild card in the peace process. But, as observed by Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the involvement of Hamas in a unity government that reached some agreement with Israel “would be much better, because any peace talks could possibly result in a peace agreement with all the Palestinians, rather than half the Palestinians.”

But first, of course, Hamas would have to learn to say the word “Israel.”

Compromise of sorts in Ukraine

The agreement over Ukraine reached April 17 in Geneva will likely only offer each side some breathing room until the next threatening act by Russia on its western neighbor. Moscow was a signatory to the “agreement,” along with the United States, the European Union and Ukraine, which calls for all parties — including the pro-Russian separatist groups who have commandeered government buildings in eastern Ukraine — to stop the violence and disarm. All good, as far as these “accords” go.

But with 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, and the Ukrainian territory of Crimea already annexed by the Putin government, no one really thinks that Russia is relaxing the threat of attack. It also remains to be seen whether Russia will urge its supporters in Ukraine to disarm and return occupied buildings to the Ukrainian government. Were Russia to do so, that would be an encouraging gesture.

In commenting on the agreement, which Secretary of State John Kerry called “a compromise of sorts,” President Obama ruled out American use of force should Russia attack Ukraine again. Instead, he spoke about further economic measures against President Vladimir Putin and his circle of friends, advisers and associates. Like most foreign policy matters — including the all-but-ended Middle East peace talks — the president has so far failed to flex any real muscle or to use his bully pulpit to rally public opinion around the administration’s goals in the region. While we admire Obama for his refusal to engage in macho posturing, we have yet to see that his cool, cerebral style has had much impact on a bully such as Putin. We suspect that Obama will need to use more than just words to convince Moscow of his resolve.

One strange incident just before the Geneva talks opened raised the question of how Jews are being used in this conflict. In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, three masked men stood in front of a local synagogue and handed out leaflets, supposedly with the imprimatur of the regional administration, calling on Jews to register and pay a tax to pro-Russian separatists.

The news of this activity was first reported in the Israeli media. With its sensationalistic echoes of the region’s tragic Nazi and Soviet pasts, the story spread around the world. Kerry condemned it. It remains unclear who was behind the leaflets and, thus, the actual size of the threat. But Jews, it seems, are very much on the minds of Ukrainians and Russians, who routinely accuse each other of anti-Semitism in their war of words.

While we would like for Ukrainians to have a say over who governs their country, Russia may ultimately do whatever it determines it can get away with. Whatever the outcome, it is vital that the region’s growing Jewish communities not become pawns in the ethnic-national conflict now unfolding.

Rethinking right-wing extremism

The Jewish Community Center in Suburban Kansas City. (Facebook)

The Jewish Community Center in Suburban Kansas City. (Facebook)

The Boston Marathon bombing, a year ago last week, took three lives, created an uproar and reignited fears about the threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism in this country. The response after what police say was white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller’s murder of three people outside two Jewish institutions in suburban Kansas City was decidedly different. True, he was arrested in a parking lot without a deadly car chase. But the shootings haven’t sparked a call for re-evaluating the relative lack of attention given to the danger posed by right-wing extremists. It should.

Until 9/11, the most deadly terror attack on American soil was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing masterminded by Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing extremist. His attack led to the deaths of 168 people. Since 9/11, right-wing extremists have killed more people in this country than “extremists motivated by al Qaeda’s ideology” — 34 deaths to 23, write Peter Bergen and David Sterman of CNN. That includes “white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants.” And while it isn’t a contest, it does suggest the need for a shift away from what appears to be Homeland Security’s single-minded focus on the threat of jihadist terrorists.

It is troubling to learn that law enforcement didn’t have Miller on its radar, even though he has been an outspoken white supremacist and anti-Semite for decades, having founded and led the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party. He served time in prison on weapons charges and for plotting to assassinate Morris Dees, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center. As part of a plea bargain in another case, he testified against other Klan leaders. But when he decided to take his gun to the Kansas City JCC, no one had an eye on him. The connection between white supremacism and domestic terrorism seems to have been lost on the watchers. We hope this tragic event serves as a wake-up call.

The shootings outside Kansas City also illustrate how hate-fueled violence can affect even those who are not the focus of the hater. The three people who Miller murdered were not Jews but white Christians. Their tragic deaths are a testament to the nihilism of hate and a call for greater vigilance of those who would perpetuate it.

A Seder is not enough

041814_editorialThe hungry, like the poor, have always been with us. At our Seders this week we declared, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” But can our words alone fight hunger? That is the question raised by the National Hunger Seder, held April 9 at the U.S. Capitol.

Being against hunger is easy. Doing something about it is much more difficult. At the Hunger Seder, one of 27 held around the country, a number of elected officials were on hand to speak out against food insecurity. In attendance were Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Jim McGovern, (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) as well as Matt Nosanchuk, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for Jewish Outreach. The Seder was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which has been the Jewish voice fighting hunger for nearly 30 years.

And that’s part of the problem. Mazon, the food banks and the other fine groups that are trying to ease hunger in this country and around the world can go on collecting checks and stacking canned goods, but they will never solve the problem. The solution must come from the very building in which the Hunger Seder was held — the Capitol … and the U.S. Congress.

It is our elected officials in Congress who are best able to address the persistence of hunger and poverty in this country. It was Congress that earlier this year cut $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps. And, incredibly, the $9 billion cut was considered a victory for food stamp supporters, because the Republican-led House had proposed slashing up to $39 billion.

Why has Congress seemingly forgotten the extent of hunger in this country? One answer may be that the needy don’t really have that strong a voice in the halls of government. So it is hard to get the attention of lawmakers on the issue. And officials within government who speak out on these issues don’t find significant support from lobbyists and large donors who try to influence the national agenda.

A true national hunger Seder would need to begin by confronting these issues squarely. If we want to defeat hunger, we need to do something about it. Declaring “let all who are hungry come and eat” at the Capitol sounds nice. Following up with a serious commitment on the issue and programs designed to break the cycle of poverty and the pain of hunger would be a wonderful result.

Let’s hope the men and women inside the U.S. Capitol get the message and get to work.

The knockout of Ali

What do we make of the incident of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of Islam whose invitation to receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University was revoked following protests? The school’s actions drew howls of protest from The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and others on the right and generated discomfort from just about everyone else.

The Somali-born Ali is a complex person, with views on some issues with which the vast majority of the Western world agrees and views on other issues that are more divisive. Ali has been a forceful proponent for women’s rights and an opponent of the genital mutilation practiced on girls in some Muslim countries. But she has also been unyielding in her condemnation of Islam, the religion she was born into and later abandoned. Thus, she told Reason magazine in 2007 that Muslims are “not interested in peace” and went on to say, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”

It is her harsh, uncompromising condemnation of all streams of Islam that makes people uncomfortable. Even Daniel Pipes, a hardline critic of radical Islam who defended Ali last week, was not steadfast enough for her. Reason asked Ali if Pipes was wrong in his contention that “radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution.” “He’s wrong,” Ali answered. “Sorry about that.”

Much of the blame for the Brandeis pivot is directed at Brandeis itself, which apparently didn’t do much analysis or inquiry to determine whether Ali might become the lightning rod she has turned out to be. Brandeis reportedly reneged on its promised honor after 85 of its 350 faculty members wrote a letter in protest. And an online petition created by Brandeis students collected thousands of signatures from inside and outside the school, all critical of the planned honor. So it appears that Brandeis relented under pressure. That may have been the right decision, but it didn’t have to play out as it did.

Such events seem to be happening with greater regularity, and they are beginning to have a sameness to them. A scheduled speaker, performance or honoree is deemed to be offensive in some way by a group of vocal, well-intentioned and well-organized critics. Because of the orchestrated uproar, the sponsoring organization cancels the event or modifies it. Meanwhile, those in the middle, who belong to no extreme, have the event agenda hijacked by more vocal ideologues. As a result, an event that would otherwise have passed largely without comment becomes a place for rhetorical sparring, accusations and disputes. Public discourse and civility suffer.

While it may be difficult to predict every complaint or uproar which particular planning decisions may evoke, there is no question that more careful vetting of programs and activities by event sponsors would go a long way toward avoiding such divisive disputes.

The collapsed talks

The Palestinian leadership votes for a request to join 15 U.N. agencies during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah amid Secretary of State John Kerry's last-ditch effort to revive peace talks with Israel. (Thaer Ganaim/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

The Palestinian leadership votes for a request to join 15 U.N. agencies during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah amid Secretary of State John Kerry’s last-ditch effort to revive peace talks with Israel. (Thaer Ganaim/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

The recriminations and told-you-so’s that followed the apparent breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations last week are well- founded. Each side pointed to the other in an effort to cast blame. At least with respect to the particular accusations made, each side was right: The Palestinians acted contrary to agreed protocol by signing 15 U.N. treaties, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged. And Israel reneged on its agreement to release a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners, as President Mahmoud Abbas complained. But neither “violation” caused the talks to fail. Rather, the nearly nine months of talks failed because they were led by people who were apparently too weak to transcend their own political limitations.

So, where do things go from here?

Suggestions on the Israeli side have come from left, right and center. Tzipi Livni, the lead Israeli negotiator, called on Netanyahu and Abbas to start talking directly instead of relying on their underlings. The nine-month window doesn’t formally close until April 29, so there is still time for such talks. But would the effort lead to some kind of grand gesture or a breakthrough? We doubt it. And there has been no sign that either man has it in him.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called for new elections in Israel as a way to break the stalemate. Perhaps Lieberman thinks that the failure of the talks will produce gains for the right wing and propel him to the prime minister’s office. We doubt that as well.

And from the left, former government minister Yossi Beilin urged the two sides to stop trying to reach an elusive final status agreement. Instead, Beilin said that with U.S. help, the two sides should negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. Under Beilin’s plan, the prisoner release would go through and the Palestinians would freeze their applications to the U.N. We don’t think that suggestion has much likelihood of success either.

That said, we find it encouraging that even in the face of the collapsing talks and mounting frustration, almost all factions of the Israeli government are actively proposing alternative approaches. New ideas present new opportunities, and that is good.

We are discouraged, however, that we hear nothing similar coming from the Palestinian side. In that regard, we urge Abbas to recognize that the politics of rejection only gets his cause so far. Without at least some give, there is a limit on what one can take. And in a true negotiation, one needs to learn how to say “yes.” We have seen no indication that Abbas and his “negotiators” subscribe to this view.

While we would like to believe that Secretary of State John Kerry’s intensive effort to bring the two sides to an agreement was not in vain, we aren’t so sure.

Newspaper ownership consolidation

News this week that the Jerusalem Post would buy the troubled Hebrew daily Maariv for $1.5 million comes on the heels of word that American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson will purchase the Israeli weekly Makor Rishon and NRG website for nearly $5 million. Adelson, a casino mogul, high-profile political contributor and prolific philanthropist, also owns the daily Israel Hayom, bankrolling it at a reported $14 million a year.

In this sense, the dream that Israel would be a nation like all others has come true. Israel appears to be going through the same print media consolidation as we are seeing in the U.S. and many other western nations. Thus, what some optimistically call “creative destruction” is now a fact of life in Israel, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages for news and media consumers. Closer to home, we’ve seen Amazon founder Jeff Bezos snap up The Washington Post for $250 million.

What are these billionaires thinking? Are they buying these vehicles for their investment value or for some other purpose? And if the latter, what for?

To be sure, the newspaper industry’s quarter-century decline, which picked up speed after the Internet radically changed our expectations about how we get our information, isn’t likely to stop. Readers now expect to pay nothing for the information they get and do much or most of their reading on electronic devices. Hard copies, with bleeding newsprint, are becoming much less popular. But getting enough eyeballs onto phones, tablets and computer screens in order to attract advertisers hasn’t proved as easy or as profitable as older-fashioned print advertising in the golden age of print media.

There was unquestionable value to “old media,” and maybe that is what the new wave of purchasers is seeking to regain. Newspapers and other “old media” traditionally served as the arbiter of public debate. They were the forum for the reports and opinions that helped shape public perception and views. Despite their private ownership, print newspapers and “old media” were considered quasi-public institutions that performed a civic good. With the proliferation of outlets like the Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Facebook and Twitter, there seems to be less need for “traditional” news sources, and much less demand for it.

But media ownership in fewer and fewer hands runs the risk of a homogenization of coverage and a reduction of competition between the remaining media companies. This is a concern that was expressed lately in Israel, where a thriving newspaper industry once existed. It is also a worry here as well.

While we admit to being old-fashioned enough to enjoy a printed copy of the daily paper, and a weekly copy of this one, what is really important is that the information we read is deep, well-researched, well-written and balanced. Let’s hope the new group of news moguls agree.

The Israeli visa question

An Israeli passport. (Wikimedia Commons)

An Israeli passport.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Most Americans who go to Israel can do so without a visa. It’s not the same for Israelis who want to visit the U.S., who must first have a 90-day visa approved in a meeting with a U.S. consular official in Israel. That certainly creates an uneven relationship. But for the vast majority of Israeli applicants, the visa approval process is not an onerous one. For the minority of young Israelis who are denied entry, however, the process by which America awards coveted visas can seem pretty random.

Israel’s congressional supporters, along with AIPAC, have been pushing for the Jewish state to be included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. If included, Israel would join a club of 38 countries whose nationals do not need a visa before entering the United States. In order to qualify for the program, however, a country must have no more than a 3 percent historical visa rejection rate. According to the U.S. State Department, Israel’s refusal rate in 2013 was 9.7 percent. And a bill that would waive the 3 percent threshold is stuck in the Senate.

There are conflicting explanations for the high Israeli visa rejection rates. Some point to many young Israelis who ignore the terms of their visitor’s visa and work at mall kiosks that sell trinkets and Dead Sea products, real and fake. Those Israelis break U.S. law and add to the growing number of undocumented workers in the United States. While we don’t encourage work documentation avoidance, the issue is a relatively minor one, and the numbers are small.

Much more problematic, however, is a statement last week from Foggy Bottom, where a spokeswoman suggested that the rising visa rejection rate for Israelis is a response to how Israel treats visiting Palestinian-Americans. “Reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” said the spokeswoman.

That explanation is troubling and smacks of a double standard. We hear repeatedly of visitors to the United States from the Middle East — even ones who hold American passports — who are subjected to increased scrutiny and questioning at the border because of various legitimate security concerns. So, what’s wrong if Israel adopts a similar, protective policy? And if reciprocity is the standard, why shouldn’t Israelis visiting the U.S. be accorded the same visa courtesy and status as American visitors to Israel?

We urge the parties to work together to develop a solution by which Israel can join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, thereby making movement between the two countries freer and more enriching.  Full reciprocity makes sense. Double standard policies don’t

A spectacle for King Sheldon

There are no current kings in Israel. But there are kings in politics — and Jewish kings as well. Most prominent of these is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, with his fortune, is the financial backbone of the Republican Party, along with the non-Jewish Koch brothers.

Last weekend, a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas became an Adelson love fest, as one potential Republican presidential candidate after another made his case before 400 Jewish Republicans. The main target of each presentation was Adelson, who spent a reported $93 million on the 2012 presidential race. Indeed, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made no bones about it and frequently directed his remarks to “Sheldon.”

If this smacks of political brownnosing — with presidential hopefuls focused on the money — it was. But that’s nothing new. Virtually everybody does it.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Citizen’s United in 2010, the pay-to-play voices belonging to the richest and most powerful have drowned out those of ordinary people. Public election finance is essentially dead. What is left are mega-givers, who hope to buy election results with their dollars.

It isn’t just the Republicans, of course — although Adelson and the Kochs are particularly prominent. The Democrats are just as addicted to big money. The fact is, big money is just about the only way to get elected. And although there may be fewer super-rich mega-givers in the Democratic Party, the liberal side does benefit from the deep pockets of George Soros and others.

Having to spend most waking hours in the “soul-crushing” pursuit of money is a situation no politician wants. Moreover, that process shortchanges the public.

There are some campaign finance proposals circulating that are designed to address the problem. Last year, Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced the Grassroots Democracy Act. It would match every donation of $100 or less with $5 in public matching funds. In addition, it would provide voters with up to a $50 tax credit for contributions to a political candidate.

That same public-private concept is behind legislation proposed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). Among its provisions is a 5-to-1 match on the first $250 of any contribution up to $1,250 for congressional candidates.

The problem is not a shortage of solutions. The problem is that no one knows when the public will get angry enough at the current state of affairs to demand that the system be changed. Last week’s Sheldon Spectacle should hasten that day.

A man apart

Bernard Madoff insists he “made more money for Jewish people and charities” than he lost.” (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom)

Bernard Madoff insists he “made more money for Jewish people and charities” than he lost.” (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom)

As he serves a 150-year sentence for running the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history, Bernard Madoff surely has a lot of time to think about his crimes and their ramifications. But in an interview last week with Politico, Madoff showed that he was a man apart — imperious, disconnected, unrepentant and surprisingly lacking in empathy. These troubling traits may help explain how he was able to maintain such a fantastically large fraud — estimated by investors to be as high as $65 billion — until it crashed in 2008.

Among the more prominent of Madoff’s victims were Jewish organizations and individuals. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, Hadassah, Yeshiva University and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles were all hit hard. The American Jewish Congress was reduced to a shoestring organization. These and other organizations and individuals invested money with Madoff, a man who convinced himself and others that he was a devoted and caring Jew.

Based upon the interview, however, it doesn’t appear that Madoff feels particular remorse for what he did to the Jewish community he was a part of for decades, or to the Jewish institutions he had a hand in ruining, or for the predominantly Jewish retirees and investors who put their fortunes in his hands only to see them disappear. Thus, he told the interviewer: “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews; I betrayed people.” It’s almost as if Madoff thinks he ran an equal opportunity fraud.

And then he went further. “I don’t feel any worse for a Jewish person than I do for a Catholic person,” he said. “Religion had nothing to do with it.”

Not quite.

While it is true that Madoff betrayed “people,” the disproportionate impact of his fraud was on the Jewish community and on Jewish clients. Those clear results belie his rationalization. Madoff hurt Jews in many different ways, not all of them financial. But in the financial realm, the hurt to the Jewish community and to Jews was far greater than any other group.

Madoff did admit: “I betrayed people that put trust in me — certainly the Jewish community.” But he then muddied his confession with another rationalization: “I’ve made more money for Jewish people and charities than I’ve lost.”

Madoff’s claimed gains don’t bring much comfort. First, we don’t know whether he made that money or stole it. Second, we don’t really know whether the claimed gains are true.

Madoff comes closest to the personification of the hateful stereotype of the cheating Jew than anyone in recent memory. We wonder where that fits in his analysis.

There is, however, one thing we can learn from the interview: Bernie Madoff needs to do a lot more thinking about what he did and who he hurt. He has plenty of time.