To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013: Neocon Grandiosity, 'Passionate Attachments' And Washington’s Farewell Address

Last Thanksgiving in the Weekly Standard, editor Bill Kristol waxed lyrical about the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, using what he called “the most Old Testament, the most Hebraic, of our national holidays” to salute the bond between the two countries in terms that were almost metaphysical. Wrote Kristol:

And so these two very different nations—Christian and Jewish, large and small, new world and old (though the new world nation is older than its newly reborn old world counterpart)—find themselves allied. More than allied: They find themselves joined at the hip in a brotherhood that is more than a diplomatic or political or military alliance. Everyone senses that the ties are deeper than those of mere allies. Israelis know that if the United States fails, so shall Israel. Americans sense, in the words of Eric Hoffer, “as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us.”

The editorial was a window into the grandiosity and exceptionalism with which neocons regard each nation individually, but even more so the moral, political and cultural pairing of the two. You could almost read it as an advertisement for making Israel the 51st state, or some the fusion of the two states, as per some of the AIPAC logos, the stars and stripes seamlessly merging into the white and blue Star of David.

Which to many Americans is turning the “special relationship” into an Alliance Too Far, blurring the boundaries upon which all good relationships depend. As Frost said: “Good fences make good neighbors.”  

In the year since Kristol’s editorial, pro Israel forces have demonstrated some truly extraordinary “boundary issues,” signaling a dedication to the priorities and perspectives of the current government of the Jewish state that baldy trumps its regard for the foreign policy and national security initiatives of their own sitting president..   

Pro Israel forces engaged in the worst form of McCarthyism to smear defense secretary Chuck Hagel during the battle of his confirmation last winter, with compliant journalists hurling unfounded, and often anonymous, charges of anti Semitism based on little more than a few verbal gaffes. They’ve also pulled out all the stops on Capitol Hill to convince Congress to pressure Obama to attack Syria despite massive popular opinion against such a move, excoriating that popular opinion, tantrum-like, as a form of pre WW2 isolationism after they failed to get their way. The pro-Israel community also tried to scuttle Obama’s deal with Iran, again demagogically depicting it in terms of the appeasement and moral abandonment of Munich, 1938. The Israel lobby was ultimately frustrated in the three examples I just cited. But its power and influence are enormous, representing a huge headwind---and a source of political peril--- for politicians reliant on the votes and campaign donations that the lobby can marshal any time an American proposal or policy initiative emerges that may not meet Israeli approval, or those that carry water for the Israel here.   

So this Thanksgiving, as a sort of rejoinder to Kristol. I’d like to suggest a reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address from 1796. It advises “the truly enlightened and independent Patriot “ to be wary of foreign influence and “passionate attachments” to other nations. Such attachments produce “a variety if ills,” Washington warned:

Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.

And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation….

In a political year of so much bile, bullying and obstructionism, we should be grateful for the breakthrough deal on Iranian nuclear development. Grateful and wary. Wary of the Iranians, of course. But wary too of those whose passionate attachment to Israel has exalted the US alliance with that country into something practically transcendent, at least in their minds, when it should be something much closer to the ground. “Ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens” should take note. They may yet achieve their aims, on the Iran deal and on other initiatives; the lobby's powers of persuasion and bullying are still formidable and the anti Semitism card still strong, although almost derangedly abused. But they won't do so "without odium." 

Friday, November 22, 2013

On Iranian Sanctions Intel, US Senator Mark Kirk Puts Israel's First

In the American debate on Israel, where language police and thought controllers enforce dysfunctionally narrow parameters of acceptable discourse, nothing is as inflammatory as an accusation of being an “Israel-Firster." Many pro-Israel partisans consider the term inherently anti-Semitic, dredging up the canard of “dual loyalty” from fetid historical swamps: The Dreyfus Affair; Henry Ford’s The International Jew.

Back in 2012, when MJ Rosenberg sparked a controversy at Media Matters while using the term, Jeffery Goldberg, then at the Atlantic, wrote its use “connotes someone who puts Israeli interests above America's interests. It plays on an ancient stereotype of Jews, that they are only loyal to their own sectarian cause.”  It was a term “designed to stoke anti-Jewish resentment and prejudice” and “ end an argument, not open a discussion.” It was also, Goldberg maintained, “an inaccurate way to describe American Jews who support Israel and support a strong Israel-U.S. relationship,” precluding “the possibility that the person who supports Israel is doing so precisely because he or she feels that it is in America's best interest to support Israel. “ 

But what are we to call political figures and journalistic enablers who:

1) Consistently put the interests and agenda of the current Israeli government over those of the Obama administration.
2) Are so Israel- centric on defense and foreign policy that they refract almost everything through the lens of Israel, even when the American alliance with the Jewish state is hardly primary.  
3) Give more credibility to the analysis of a foreign intelligence service over the Obama administration involving the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program weapons. 

In the case of Illinois’ Mark Kirk I guess you call him “Senator.” 

Last week at a classified session of the Senate Banking Committee, Kirk all but said he placed more stock in Israeli intelligence that that of his own country’s on the issue of the "sanctions relief package" that is a key part of Obama’s negotiation strategy with Tehran over reining in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Which was tantamount to announcing an intent to scuttle Obama’s diplomatic solution to the Iran nukes dilemma in favor of the only option Israel favors: a military strike or series of strikes. Such strikes would not provide any lasting solution to the problem posed by Israel’s nuclear program but could quite likely trigger a wider regional conflagration, into which the US would almost inevitably be drawn. 

And Kirk is not alone, as Thomas Friedman observed the other day, noting the number of elected representatives on both sides of the aisle ready to do the bidding of the Israeli government on the sanctions deal.  Never have I seen Israel and America’s core Arab allies working more in concert to stymie a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting U.S. president, and never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”

As Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray and Foreign Policy’s John Hudson reported, Kirk’s performance in the Senate Banking Committee hearing came at the end of a week where an array of Israeli officials, including Ambassador Ron Dermer (a former US citizen) and right wing economy minister Naftali Bennett (who favors Israeli annexation of the Occupied Territories), joined American operatives of AIPAC in quietly storming Capitol Hill to make their case against Obama’s sanctions relief gambit.  At the center of this pro-Israel effort, which included one-on-one briefings, some from unnamed Israeli intelligence operatives, was data that ran counter to US assessments. While, the Obama administration says it’s offer to Iran involves no more than $9 billion in sanctions relief, the Israelis told members of Congress that the concessions would amount to at least $20 billion, maybe more and would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by 24 days.

According to various reports, Kirk had a series of tense exchanges with Secretary of State John Kerry over the financial impact that sanctions would have, citing the Israeli figures that were at least twice as high, and admitting that the figures were supplied to him by a "senior Israeli official” on Wednesday of that week, who Kirk declined to name. After the briefing, Kirk told reporters: "The administration very disappointingly said, 'discount what the Israelis say.' I don't. I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service." Vaguely implying anti Semitism on Kerry’s part, Kirk added that the briefing was “anti-Israeli.” 

Kirk added:  "Today is the day in which I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East. This administration, like Neville Chamberlain, is yielding large and bloody conflict in the Middle East involving Iranian nuclear weapons. “

By the following Wednesday, Kirk had sponsored an amendment, co sponsored by five other Republican Banking Committee members, including Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio , to a major defense spending bill in order to strengthen existing sanctions, mostly by targeting the remaining money Iran has in overseas bank accounts, largely derived from oil sales.  Key Democrats like Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez have expressed support for further sanctions and are expected to back the bill as well.  

The fact that the Israeli government would be so open about joining AIPAC in lobbying against the negotiating strategy of the Obama administration is one thing, especially as the lobby prefers to do its work “like a night flower” in the infamous words of its former executive director Steve Rosen.  But to have US Senators openly admit to having attended those briefings, and to cite the data supplied to them in those meetings against the data provided by their own government is shocking. It’s yet another reminder how deeply the pro-Israel cause---and its political clout and money---have corrupted our political processes.  

Thomas Friedman’s J’accuse about Washington lawmakers pandering to “Jewish votes and campaign contributions” drew the objections of some “lobby deniers.” These would be the phalanx of pro-Israel political operatives and journalists who, despite massive and vivid evidence, continue to deny the validity of the Israel Lobby, written by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in 2007.  Answering Friedman’s charge, which was more than amply supported by the evidence that Kirk and crowd presented that day with Kerry in the Banking Committee chamber, Jeffrey Goldberg took to twitter. “I disagree with Tom Friedman on this one, Goldberg wrote. “U.S. lawmakers have reasons other than Jewish money to worry about contours of Iran deal.”  

It'll be interesting to read what fine points Goldberg puts on this, aside from this piece on how "Savvy" Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal thinks a naive and overeager Obama is being played.  But by citing Israeli government data over assessments provided by their own government, Kirk and crowd are indeed raising obvious questions about the undue influence of the people in whom they prefer to put their confidence. And last time I looked, those people were not the people who actually voted them into office, at least under current understandings of American sovereignty. How can you say you are putting American interests first when you contradict your own government's case with intelligence estimates from a foreign state, a state not terribly known for its trustworthiness, I might add, as 20 years of mendacity about settlements seems to justly suggest?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hiding The Bomb For Israel: At Yeshiva U Panel, Bret Stephens Keeps Israel's Nukes 'In The Basement' As Sheldon Adelson 'Bombs Iran'

The week before last in upper Manhattan, Yeshiva University sponsored a debate with the provocative theme of “Will Jews Exist?: Iran, Assimilation and the Threat To Israel and Jewish Survival.  The moderator was “America’s Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach, who was joined by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, The Wall Street Journal's foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens and Yeshiva U. president Richard Joel.  

The event’s framing, putting Jewish American assimilation on par with the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons development was itself provocative. Why would pro Israel partisans equate Jewish intermarriage or a decline in the connection that college-age American Jews feel toward Israel with Iran’s imminent crossing of the nuclear threshold, an existential threat which the state of Israel has been so adamant about preventing?  Didn’t fretting about assimilation here diminish, or even trivialize the specter of nuclear weapons over there? Or was this merely one of those intellectual bait and switch things, the kind of impish, animating premise often used in Oxford Union debates, which Boteach knows well from his years leading Oxford’s L’Chaim Society? 

What turned out to be most provocative about that night though was Sheldon Adelson’s apocalyptic call for the US to drop an atomic bomb in the Iranian desert as a shot across the bow so that Tehran would gave up its nuclear weapons program. In the past, the combination of Adelson’s money, the political uses he puts it to and his Zionist extremism has led some to liken him to a parody character sprung from the Protocols. That night at Yeshiva, however, Adelson was channeling Doctor Strangelove.

Dismissing the idea of negotiating with Iran, even if it ceased enriching uranium, Adelson told moderator Boteach:

What are we going to negotiate about? What I would say is, “Listen, you see that desert out there, I want to show you something.” You pick up your cellphone … and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘O.K., let it go.’ So there’s an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles, in the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. Then you say: “See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. You want to be peaceful? You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, for energy purposes.”

Adelson drew hearty applause from the audience of mostly conservative and orthodox American Jews. He made some news as well, with Time, Politico and the New York Times running withering accounts and  MSNBC’s Chris Hayes airing a ten minute segment titled “Sheldon Strangelove “ Hayes: 

It is absolutely unequivocally not OK 
to use a nuclear weapon to send a message. A first strike nuclear tact is a war crime of epic, historic, historic, horrific proportions and is 
unanimously viewed as such by everyone, seriously, not OK.

Hayes also said to bear in mind that:

This is not coming from some powerless old crank. These 
might sound like the rantings of an anonymous basement dwelling wing-nut 
internet commenter, but they are not. They are the rantings of an insanely 
rich and incredibly powerful conservative.

As completely over-the-top as Adelson was, Stephens comments on the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon stood out too, but in a far more muted way where the meaning was in the negative space. This was due largely to the way Stephens discussed the Iranian bomb without ever directly acknowledging Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. In keeping with Shmuley Boteach’s description of him as “one the foremost defenders of Israel (who) some consider the best current defender of Israel in the English language,” Stephens euphemized, obfuscated and otherwise sidestepped the issue of Israel’s middle eastern nuclear monopoly, even as that issue is very much a part of the larger conversation on Iran.  

When asked by Boteach what he thought of Adelson’s remarks, Stephens said he agreed with “98%,” though he didn’t say what he disagreed with. Stephens then went on to say that what is not sufficently understood in most conversations about nuclear weapons---Iran’s and others---is that “In nuclear weapons, possession equals use. “ A country with a nuclear weapon “can do things as a country that countries that don’t have nuclear weapons cannot.” People may say that Iran would never be so crazy as to attack Israel with nuclear weapons because Iran knows Israel has the capability for “devastating reprisals.” But what makes the Iranian bomb really dangerous is the way it will energize Iran’s allies in Hezbollah and Hamas and how much more aggressive Iran itself would be in terms of terrorism worldwide against Jewish targets than it has already been once it gets a nuclear umbrella. “Sophisticated people” who believe that Iran won’t attack Israel because Israel has “the means of reprisal” were indulging in “idiot-think.” 

I don’t think Stephens is entirely wrong in understanding how Iran will use its weapon to intimidate and expand terrorism. But in saying that with nuclear weapons “possession equals use” he very much is ignoring an elaphant in the living room---the Israeli possession of such weapons. And the phrases “Devastating reprisals” and “means of reprisal” seem more apt to coming from an Israeli government official intent on spinning the issue rather than a journalist speaking plain truth.

It’s not that Stephens hasn’t acknowledged the Israeli bomb in the past. In 2004 while editor of the Jeruselem Post for instance, Stephens noted the Isreali nuclear weapons program in a column excoriating Mordechai Vanunu an Israeli whistleblower who leaked documents about it in 1986 and served almost 20 years in prison for it. The larger point made about Vanunu, Stephens wrote in rejecting said larger point, “is that the West cannot demand the wider Middle East to be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction without demanding as much from Israel.” In 2009 in the Wall Street Journal, Stephens lamented a UN Security Council vote, from which the Obama administration abstained, which resolved to have Israel give up its nuclear weapons,” as he wrote. The abstention, an Obama administration told Stephens--- an explanation which the columnist seemed to deride even as he quoted it--- showed a rejection “of a double standard where Israel gets a nuclear free ride but Iran has to abide by every letter in the NPT… How can we tell Tehran that they're better off without nukes if we won't make the same point to our Israeli friends?" And at an Americn Jewish Committee annual meeting panel in 2010 with the New York Times Roger Cohen, Stephens explained that he didn’t stay up at night thinking about the current roster of nuclear powers because “Britain is a responsible nuclear power , so is France, so very importantly, and this can’t be stressed enough so is Israel”

So why did Stephens bite his tongue that night? It might have been a bit awkward for Stephens to acknowledge the I Bomb right in front of Sheldon Adelson, especially after he ranted about dropping a warning nuke on the Iranians.  Adelson’s influence in the right wing Israeli political circles which Stephens is closely allied to is formidable; Adelson underwrites many pro Israel organizations in the US that offer generous speaking fees.

And as much as Stephens may have acknowledged Israel’s nukes in the past, Israel’s nuclear monopoly is back on the table now in the pubic diplomacy involving Iran’s nuclear pursuits, underscoring the Israeli double standard, which might have encouraged Stephens’ reticence. In late September during UN week,  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a UN nuclear disarmament conference said Israel must admit its nuclear capabilities ahead of “landmark” meetings between Iranian and western foreign ministers, AFP reported. Shortly after that during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called Israel’s nuclear weapons “the source of insecurity in our region.”

Just four days before the Yeshiva panel, Israeli-American national security scholar Avner Cohen gave  an interview to AL Jazeera discussing Israel’s nuclear program, based on the research he conducted for a recent book The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb.  Of official resistance to admit the obvious, Cohen said: “This issue is the creme de la creme of national security, and one cannot expect whatsoever to get any data. “ Cohen added:

I think that sometimes, some Israelis enjoy the opacity or the ambiguity around the nuclear program, because they would like others to think all sorts of things. Theyʼre not going to say it, but they wouldnʼt mind if others would speculate all sorts of ideas, including that nuclear weapons are usable.”

Breaking with the taboo, which is shared in official Ameican circles as well, Washington Post columnist  Walter Pincus, who has been covering the American-Israeli security relationship for decades, declared: 

It’s time for Israel to stop making military threats and to propose an imaginative diplomatic move — risky as it may seem — to help ease nuclear tensions in the Middle East. 
It can start by acknowledging its own nuclear weapons program.

An open discussion of Israel’s nukes also carries the risk of focusing attention to the history of how Israel acquired them and the symmetries, hardly exact but nevertheless noteworthy--- between Israel’s emergence as a nuclear power and Iran’s attempt to do the same.  Avner Cohen told Al Jazeera, that Israel’s reaction to the specter of an Iran bomb has some element of projection in it---“mirror imaging” in Cohen’s words: “That is to say that the Israelis look at the Iranians as if the Iranians were the Israelis themselves, who are determined to have the bomb.”  Pincus noted the parallels in seeking to explain the passion with which  Netanyahu  has attacked Iranian suggestions that its program is peaceful:

Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran following the path Israel took 50 years ago when it’s known that his country joined the relatively small nuclear weapons club…When the Israeli prime minister asked, “Why would a country that claims to only want peaceful nuclear energy, why would such a country build hidden underground enrichment facilities?” I thought Dimona.

Indeed, as Avner Cohen and William Burr revealed in a 2006 article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Israel’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons was marked by a cat-and-mouse game with the US  involving  subterfuge, duplicity, manipulation and stalling throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, which were concerned that an Israeli bomb would jeopardize US led nonproliferation efforts in the Mid East and beyond.  While Israel agreed that it would not “introduce” nuclear weapons to the region, it’s understanding of that pledge did not mean physical “possession” which the US assumed. Israel also insisted that its nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Dimona was peaceful and purposely misled American inspectors on tours of that facility, which were only agreed to after considerable, calculated delay. Just as with Iran, American officials suspected that Israel was pursuing a “last wire strategy” in which it would develop all the constituent parts for a bomb, but stop short before completing their assembly. When a secret meeting between Golda Meir and Richard Nixon left no doubt that a weapon had been acquired, the two countries adopted a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy.  As Cohen and Burr explain it:

Secrecy, taboo, and non- acknowledgement became embedded within the U.S.-Israeli posture … Politically, the Nixon-Meir agreement allowed both leaders to continue with their old public policies without being forced to publicly acknowledge the new reality. … As long as Israel kept the bomb in the basement—which meant keeping the program under full secrecy, making no test, declaration, or any other visible act of displaying capability or otherwise transforming its status—the United States could live with Israel’s “non-introduction” pledge.

I certainly don’t want Iran to get a bomb, and I also don’t mind Israel having a regional nuclear monopoly, at least until some kind of effective nonproliferation and disarmament process can be established. As far as Israel is concerned, “possession” of a bomb has not in fact meant its “use,” contrary to Stephens’ categorical formulation. Israel may be a bully, and certainly some in the pro Israel community here, such as Stephens, have bullied people intellectually and politically on its behalf. But it is not in fact a nuclear bully.

Still the dodging and weaving about this is off-putting, especially coming from a journalist.  It’s fine if governments want to uphold official pieties, bilateral taboos, conspiracies of silence or diplomatic fictions. But journalists shouldn’t. Stephens verbal tricks seem coy, calculated to establish and maintain loyalty to a government line rather than journalistic dedication to the full truth. It’s a particular form of deception and manipulation that unfortunately marks all too much of the discourse on the US-Israel relationship: lying by omission.

Studiously ignoring such a major factor in the Iranian-Israeli-US relationship makes diplomacy, as well as the public opinion and public perceptions it depends on harder to shape. Maintaining this totally open secret about Israel’s bomb hands Iran an advantage that they use in court of world opinion, making demands for transparency on the part of the Iranians simply seem one-sided. It’s yet another manifestation of a pro Israel double standard that has makes the special relationship problematic.  It says to the world that Israel can be opaque or duplicitous and that US will protect that.

Interestingly, in Israel, the taboo about Israel’s nukes is no longer observed outside official circles. According to Avner Cohen in his Al Jazeera interview:

In terms of substance, the old policy remains unchanged. It is fair though, to say that the general taboo and discourse has slightly become more amenable, more flexible, because otherwise it would look so idiotic.