Netanyahu Leans Right

With his offer to bring the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party into his governing coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has probably formed the most right-wing ruling coalition in the country’s history. And with his offer to make party leader Avigdor Lieberman defense minister, Netanyahu is putting  Israel’s formidable armed forces into the hands of a man with little military experience but who makes no bones about his willingness to use Israel’s military against its enemies.

News that Netanyahu invited Lieberman and his party’s six Knesset seats into the government came as attention was focused on an expected announcement of a unity government with opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union. That move was supposed to add a moderating influence on the government’s rightward tack. And if Herzog had become foreign minister, as was predicted, Israel would have had an international spokesman that the outside world regarded as sober and reasonable. It would also have led to a split in Zionist Union, as only a few of its MKs were prepared to join the Netanyahu government.

Hemmed in from the left, Netanyahu turned right. With Yisrael Beiteinu, the government has a larger, more stable majority. But it also contains Lieberman, an ambitious, divisive figure. His home is in Nokdim, a settlement in the West Bank, a territory under the defense minister’s  jurisdiction.

Lieberman, who was a corporal in the artillery corps, will not be the first defense minister to come from the ranks of noncommissioned officers, but it is not his military service that people are talking about. Instead, they recall that Lieberman turned heads in capitals throughout the Western world during his recent stint as foreign minister, when he was effectively labeled persona non grata in Washington. While some of his policy ideas are popular among the right, they give many in the current U.S. administration and in the American Jewish community pause, such as a call to transfer some of Israel’s Arab population to territory that would  encompass a future Palestinian state.

The newly constituted Netanyahu government is not the Israeli government that the United States or Europe wants. As such, that new governing coalition is likely to have a difficult time on the diplomatic front. With a French peace initiative on the horizon, a new Quartet report about settlements due out and a possible U.N. attempt to impose an Israeli-Palestinian solution this year, Israel’s government needs diplomatic flexibility and credibility in order to navigate what could be very  challenging days ahead.

Electoral stability is important. And a strong governing majority is what every administration prays for. But with the  embrace of and delegation of national  defense authority to Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu and Israel may be paying too high a price for what they believe will be domestic political comfort.

The White House’s New Jewish Liaison

In the Washington area, just about every politically active member of the Jewish community considers himself or herself a Jewish liaison to one or more politicians. In the case of the White House, however, it is the president who chooses the person who will convey the administration’s message to organized Jewry and who will respond to Jewish opinions aimed at the administration. That same person also has the highly sensitive responsibility of deciding who gets invited to the annual White House Chanukah party.

Last week, State Department staffer Chanan Weissman was named as the White House’s associate director of public engagement, the Jewish liaison’s official title. Weissman, 32, is a Baltimore native who attended the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and spent several years as a resident of Greater Washington while studying for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland and his master’s degree at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He attends services at Pikesville Jewish Congregation.

Weissman succeeds longtime liaison Matt Nosanchuk, who stepped down from the post in March after nearly three years. Nosanchuck’s tenure was not easy. He weathered the U.S.-led Israel-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed in 2013, and struggled to survive the Jewish communal split over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Nosanchuck deserves credit for his endurance, and we wish him well.

Weissman’s tenure won’t be as long. It will be barely eight months before the next president will be sworn in — still, Weissman will get to preside over invitations to the last Obama Chanukah celebrations. Weissman will be Obama’s sixth Jewish  liaison. Seven people held the post in George W. Bush’s eight-year administration.

So what can we expect from Weissman? Given his record of accomplishment, we doubt that he will be a mere placeholder. Obama is still hunting for his legacy. And although reports indicate that Obama has publicly given up hope of achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority before he leaves office, the administration does not appear content to let things lie. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry has given a green light to French-led peace talks over the objection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu, a move that will likely reopen the still-healing communal wounds of the Iran deal and the last round of peace talks. It will fall to Weissman to deal with those very sensitive issues.

Weissman deserves a hearty mazel tov for being tapped by the president. But in extending that wish to him, we emphasize the literal translation of the words: Good luck.

Getting Serious about Zika

In February, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus and prevent a major outbreak in the United States. Last week, the Republican-controlled Congress finally responded, and it looks like the Senate and possibly the House of Representatives will soon vote on their own measures.

Even though the figure emerging from the Republican leadership — $1.1 billion — is smaller than the White House request, we are pleased to see Congress finally moving on this issue. But until actual funds are made available for this vital need, the slow-moving legislative branch will be  responsible for what could end up being a public health disaster.

There is no vaccine for Zika, so part of the emergency funds would go toward vaccine research. And while Zika produces mild symptoms in most people, pregnant women infected with the disease are at substantial risk for having children with birth defects. Researchers who reviewed a surge in such cases in Brazil have concluded that Zika causes the birth defect microcephaly and the autoimmune condition Guillain-Barré syndrome, both life threatening.

In its February request, the White House made clear that the requested funding would be used for actual treatment, research, education and prevention. Given the apocalyptic threat of the Zika virus, they are all needed. In fact, since new research shows that the virus likely will not be confined to hot, Southern zones, as was previously thought, it is  becoming all the more clear that steps need to be taken to better track the spread of the virus and to find ways to control the mosquitoes that infect humans with the virus.

Zika has been detected in the Aedes  albopictus mosquito, which travels as far north as New England, and that mosquito is also more common than the Aedes  aegypti species that has been the focus of cases in Latin America. In Puerto Rico, the first case of Zika-related microcephaly case — a fetus — was announced on Friday. The commonwealth reportedly has 925 cases of Zika, including 128 pregnant women. Those numbers are almost certain to rise.

When Congress failed to act earlier in the year, the administration moved $589 million from other projects — including the effort to combat the Ebola virus, whose crisis has passed for now — for  immediate Zika use. More is needed. When Congress finally agrees to fund this necessary public health campaign, we hope it will be at the necessary level, and that it will come in time.

Lives literally depend on it.

A Call for Civility in the Public Sphere

Diversity of opinion has long been a feature of Jewish tradition as well as of American democracy. Argument “for the sake of heaven” — disagreement in search of a higher truth, as opposed to disagreement for the sake of obstinacy — is a core feature of Judaism. Similarly, a robust and vigorous debate about political and social issues has always been a hallmark of American society.

But since the presidential election season began in earnest last fall, civility — even a thin veneer of it — has been overshadowed by a troubling phenomenon: invective in place of debate. That has given way to a dangerous brand of politicking: argument, accusations and name calling for the sake of self-aggrandizement.

It’s easy to call names, to churn frustration into hate, and to divide an already fractious community. But it must stop. Every candidate from every party must reaffirm, through their words and actions, their commitment to the shared core values of American political life: free thought, mutual respect and civic engagement. The electorate is entitled to nothing less.

In the American Jewish community, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs is circulating a statement on civil discourse during elections and beyond. We support that effort and its call for everyone “to engage in a thoughtful, respectful and civil discussion over the future direction of this country” and to “strive to make our politics represent the best of our American values.”

“Shrill political discussion can cross the line, and spread intolerance and bigotry,” the statement continues. “Especially during elections, when divisions are most pronounced, we must be vigilant in preventing political discourse from drawing on deep-seated resentment and intolerance.”

America is what it is because of the rule of law and its free institutions. Some of the founders were as fearful of the tyranny of the mob as they were of the despotism of those in power. To this view, a demagogue and his or her followers are threats to the people’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness because they seek to uproot the institutions that safeguard stability and foster incremental change.

That change seems even slower today, as the pace of activity and communication continues to increase and the opportunity for deep thinking decreases. So perhaps because it is so easy to repost statements or pronouncements that have the depth of bumper stickers and make disparaging comments without thinking about them while scrolling down a Facebook wall, we each need to take up the practice of civility as a discipline. Today is a good time to start.

Misleading With Contempt

Politics, diplomacy and warfare are not for the naïve. So we probably shouldn’t be upset to learn that the Obama administration manipulated the media to tell a narrative about the nuclear negotiations with Iran that was misleading and untrue. But we are upset. And we have a right to be.

The conduct of secret, sensitive diplomacy involving national security issues is nothing new. Indeed, in many cases absolute secrecy is necessary for any number of valid reasons. But secrecy is one thing. Intentionally lying to the public is another. And there is no excuse for the latter. Moreover, the contempt shown by Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, for the press and the electorate in his recent New York Times interview shows a level of chutzpah that is downright offensive.

Americans were told that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, led to a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations. Now we learn that wasn’t true. Rhodes disclosed to the Times that even before the Rouhani election, the United States was already dealing with Iran’s more hardline leadership and had reached a framework for a nuclear agreement.

Many Obama supporters and pro-Israel Democrats backed the Iran deal, despite their own misgivings and the vocal opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at least in part because they understood that there was a need to show support for Rouhani and Iranian moderates. Rhodes’ disclosure begs the question of whether those supporters might have listened more closely to their misgivings and other concerns had they known the truth.

Then there was the arrogance with which Rhodes described taking advantage of young reporters. “Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” His team therefore created what he called an “echo chamber,” in which so-called experts did nothing more than parrot the administration’s talking points in interviews.

There’s the sin of “managing” the press and the public. Then there’s the ignominy of bragging about it.

Just why did Rhodes decide to go public? Is the public better off knowing the truth now rather than later? Perhaps. But it sure isn’t a very good feeling to know that we have been misled on such a major issue. And it makes us a bit more suspicious about what we hear from the administration and read in the press.

Rhodes’ response to the fury following the Times article sounded like that of an unassuming team player, and was unrepentant. While telling it like it is may be fashionable this year, misleading the public and holding the people and the press in contempt is not.

Our Complex Relationship with Saudi Arabia

The U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia has always been complex. Founded on oil, the relationship flourished as America’s need for foreign energy resources grew and was fed by the Arab world’s seeming endless supply of oil. But the kingdom is dramatically different from Western democracy, and the alliance has made for very strange bedfellows.

Saudi Arabia is a rigid theocracy, where non-Muslims are not welcome, where women are forbidden to drive and where religious minorities face systematic discrimination. There is no freedom of peaceful protest. The country’s political system is owned and operated by the large Saudi royal family, and the nation is a major exporter of an extreme brand of Islam and a significant funder of violent Islamic terrorist groups.

The kingdom has long been hostile to Israel, with its opposition softening only in the last decade and a half, as the two countries focus on combatting common enemies, including Iran. President Barack Obama recently summed up America’s  relationship with Saudi Arabia by saying, “It’s complicated.”

Included in the complexities of that  relationship is the fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis. The 2002 congressional report on the attack — the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil — concluded that there was no evidence that Saudi Arabia supported al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. At least, that is what was said in the public version of the report.

Now, there is a growing call for the government to declassify 28 pages of the  report in which it is understood that the Saudi role is described in detail. “There’s no question that this is an important  alliance that has accrued to the benefit of the United States in many ways,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said last week. “But as time goes on, it’s harder and harder to ignore the holes in the  relationship.”

At the same time, a bipartisan bill is moving through the Senate that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. “It’s very simple: If the Saudi government was complicit in terrorism, then they should pay the price,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the bill’s sponsors. But leaders in both the Senate and the House say they oppose the legislation, and Obama is likely to veto it if it passes.

The public has the right to know what the 9/11 Commission concluded about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the disastrous events of Sept. 11. Therefore, no matter how “complicated” our country’s relationship is with the kingdom, we encourage full disclosure of the extent of the Saudi role in the seminal terror event that turned this country on its head and led to two wars we are still fighting.

Syria’s Insoluble Puzzle

“In the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes. One Syrian wounded every 13 minutes.” That was U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura’s  assessment of the carnage, as the shaky cease-fire in the Syrian civil war collapsed late last week.

In the divided northern city of Aleppo, a series of airstrikes on the rebel-held side killed more than 60 people, including  patients at a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Eyewitnesses said the hospital was “reduced to rubble.”

The blame for the attack falls on the Syrian air force and Russia, which provides air support for the Syrian government. Russia is firmly on the side of the Assad regime, as is Iran and Hezbollah. The chief aim of the United States, on the other hand, is the destruction of the  Islamic State group, which has carved out swaths of northern Syria and Iraq as home to its self-proclaimed caliphate.  Despite their conflicting aims, the U.S. and Russia have found ways to cooperate in seeking to broker a peace deal. It is in everyone’s interests for such cooperation to succeed.

But in response to recent efforts to get the parties to commit to peace talks, the Syrian government has sought to tie  regaining the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the 1967 Six Day War and  annexed in 1981, to attendance at the  negotiations. And the tattered Syrian regime has added inflated bravado to the mix: “All options are on the table for getting back the occupied territory from Israel” — including by force, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad reportedly said.

The Golan Heights demand is a distraction. It is also a nonstarter. First, Israel has made clear that the issue is not up for  discussion. And second, there is no functioning Syrian government with which Israel could reasonably negotiate, even if it had an interest in doing so — which it does not.

Rather than be distracted, the world needs to remain focused on the horrific human cost of the ongoing Syrian carnage. According to the United Nations, nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011. More than 6 million others have been internally displaced. The refugee crisis has strained the stability of Jordan and Lebanon, which, along with Turkey, have taken in the vast majority of the fleeing Syrians. And the waves of refugees trying to reach Europe have transformed its once-open societies, which provided unintended cover for terrorists and encouraged xenophobes on the right.

Continued bloodletting in Syria serves no one’s interests. But if the major powers continue to use what’s left of Syria as a battleground through which they and their proxies duke it out diplomatically and militarily, no one will win, and everyone will lose.

It is long past time for some sane international leadership to resolve the ongoing devastation in Syria.

The Pawns of Gaza

International focus on the well-being of the residents of Gaza is cyclical. That concern reached a high point during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, when over the course of 50 days, Gazans were held hostage by their rulers. Those rulers sent rockets into Israel knowing that any Israeli response would lead to a high death count, yet confident that it would also lead to world outrage at Israel.

The fighting left quite a mark on Gaza, damaging or destroying some 171,000 homes. After it ended, an international conference pledged some $3.5 billion in reconstruction aid over three years. But the World Bank reported last week that those pledges are being fulfilled more slowly than promised.

Of donor countries, the United States was the most prompt. It has delivered the entire $277 million it promised. By contrast, Qatar, which pledged $1 billion, has only delivered $152 million, or 15 percent of its promise. Saudi Arabia has delivered about 10 percent of the $500 million it promised. Turkey, a close ally of Hamas, has sent one third of its $200 million pledge.

We’re obviously in the waning phase of the cycle of interest in the plight of those living in Gaza, and the cynicism of the wealthy Arab states who made bloated promises of assistance is chilling. After years of turning a blind eye to the actions of Hamas, which diverted international aid to build cross-border tunnels and stockpile weapons — actions that directly led to the 2014 war — Arab states declared that they would contribute to a rebuilding of the Gaza abandoned by Hamas. But it appears that those promises were as hollow as the oft-repeated canard that Israel bears responsibility for the Palestinians living under Hamas rule.

Indeed, as Hamas rearms, retools and rebuilds under the watchful eye of its Arab sponsors — just last week came the news of a discovery by Israeli forces of perhaps the longest tunnel to date — there appears to be very little focus on the humanitarian needs that allegedly prompted the international commitments two years ago. Someone besides the World Bank needs to press the Gulf States and other boastful international pledgers to fulfill their humanitarian commitments and to stop treating the Palestinians in Gaza like pawns in a never-ending war of attrition against Israel.

Blaming the ‘Liberal-Left’

Vice President Joe Biden (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden used his appearance at the recent J Street Gala to voice the Obama administration’s frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

That was not news to anyone who has followed U.S.-Israeli relations during the Obama years. Nor is it a secret that the administration believes that “the present course Israel’s on is not one that’s likely to secure its existence as a Jewish, democratic state,” as Biden put it.

But what the vice president said in the next breath is vital: “We have to make sure that [secure existence] happens.” And later in his remarks, he said: “We are Israel’s maybe not-only friend, but only absolutely certain friend.”

Biden’s same message of warning and support was derided at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March. It was warmly received by the J Street audience, whose organization is pushing for an end to an Israeli presence in the West Bank.

Many on the Jewish right demonize J Street as Israel haters and self-hating Jews. Right-wing commentator Daniel Pipes took a more nuanced approach in a recent analysis of changes in support of Israel: “Jewish support for Israel has weakened primarily because Jews are solidly on the liberal-left of the political spectrum (these days symbolized by Bernie Sanders), the side most critical of Israel,” he wrote. “From Israel’s point of view, the fact that American Jews are losing their ardor for Israel is a distinct loss. But it is made up for by American conservative support for the Jewish state.”

In other words, according to Pipes, liberal support is down, conservative support is up. Jewish support is down, Christian support is up.

Implicit in this argument is a conclusion that because liberal American Jews are not viscerally supportive of the Jewish state (a questionable assertion), their Judaism is lacking. But that is demonstrably not true. One can be a proud, committed and active Jew and still be critical of positions taken by the Israeli government. And one can be a strong, visceral supporter of Israel and be critical of various realities there.

That’s not to say that we back J Street’s point of view or their full-throated denunciations of Israel. We absolutely do not. In fact, we believe that in the dangerous reality in which the Jewish state exists, the last thing Israel needs from its allies — whether in the U.S. government or in the American-Jewish community — is tough love.

Nonetheless, as we near the end of Passover, a reminder of the time when we were given our identity as a people, attempts to exploit the divides in our community for political gain — a sin employed by both sides of the spectrum — must be called out as the cynical tools they are. Dividing the Jewish community into “friends of Israel” and “those for whom liberalism is a more important religion than Judaism” is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

Vote on April 26

Along with the public school, the library and the city park, the line forming to vote on Election Day is a reminder and reaffirmation of civic life in the United States. As public spaces shrink, these affirmations become more important, with friends and neighbors meeting on neutral ground to share the common bond of citizenship.

This is one reason to vote in the April 26 primary. Another, of course, is that by voting, we exercise a fundamental right as Americans, animating an institution that helps give democracy its name. Voting reminds us what free and fair elections — something not guaranteed everywhere — are all about. And for us in the Jewish community, it’s an absolute imperative that we use the rights we and our ancestors looked to this country to provide in the first place.

Do you think that your vote doesn’t matter? Think again. Whether you are a registered Republican or Democrat, you have an important voice in the presidential primary that takes place on Tuesday. It’s one thing to criticize the candidates and the campaigns from the sidelines, but without casting a ballot, yours will be a complaining voice instead of an invested one.

Looking closer to home, wherever you live, there are races on the ballot that will directly affect how your tax dollars are spent. Want government money to support parochial schools? Then vote for candidates backing that position. Do you adhere to a more traditional interpretation of the separation of church and state? Then make your voice heard at the ballot box in addition to at the picket line.

We urge you to speak your mind on Tuesday, not because it will lead to utopia, but because it will link you to your fellow citizens in the performance of something vital. That is an unusual occurrence in our atomized society.

American Jews have traditionally voted in high percentages. This is likely because as a small minority, we are jealous of our rights, and, while the memory persists of how our people were persecuted in whatever Old Country they lived in, we are grateful that the United States welcomed so many of us.

This year’s election season has presented choices like no other in recent memory. Much depends on the outcome. For all of these reasons, do not choose to be silent, and do not throw your vote away. Voting is our infrequent chance to demonstrate in the clearest of terms that ours is still a government by the people and for the people.