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Posts For: July 28, 2013

The Rouhani Fan Club Jamboree

The foreign policy establishment found a new hero. No, it’s not Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry is being backed by most of the talking heads even as he charts a course for disaster in the Middle East. But as much as people like Aaron David Miller and Fareed Zakaria are working hard to vouch for what even they acknowledge to be a fool’s errand, the secretary is nowhere near as popular in the press these days as Hassan Rouhani, the president-elect of Iran. Evidence of this was seen yesterday in the New York Times when it published a front-page puff piece in the form of its Saturday profile that any liberal American politician would sell his soul for. According to the Times, Rouhani is the sort of “can do” politician that can make things happen in Iran, utilizing his close ties with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani comes across in the piece as so pragmatic and moderate that it makes you wonder how it is that relations with the Islamic Republic can be so strained with such people running Iran.

The reason for the enthusiasm in Washington and in the liberal press for Rouhani isn’t a puzzle. By portraying the man elected to the largely symbolic post of president of Iran as a man of peace, some hope to not merely defuse tensions between Iran and the West over the regime’s nuclear program but to revive support for diplomacy. Since it has long since been made clear that Iran regards such talks as merely a means to stall the West while it gets closer to achieving its nuclear goal, belief in more talks with Iran is a tough sell. But Rouhani is supposed to change all that and offer President Obama a plausible option for avoiding the use of force in order to make good on his promise never to allow Iran to go nuclear.

The only problem with this formulation is that the closer you look at it him, the less moderate he sounds. Indeed, as the Times profile makes clear, for all of the bouquets being thrown in Rouhani’s direction, it’s fairly obvious that his main virtue is that he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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The foreign policy establishment found a new hero. No, it’s not Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry is being backed by most of the talking heads even as he charts a course for disaster in the Middle East. But as much as people like Aaron David Miller and Fareed Zakaria are working hard to vouch for what even they acknowledge to be a fool’s errand, the secretary is nowhere near as popular in the press these days as Hassan Rouhani, the president-elect of Iran. Evidence of this was seen yesterday in the New York Times when it published a front-page puff piece in the form of its Saturday profile that any liberal American politician would sell his soul for. According to the Times, Rouhani is the sort of “can do” politician that can make things happen in Iran, utilizing his close ties with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani comes across in the piece as so pragmatic and moderate that it makes you wonder how it is that relations with the Islamic Republic can be so strained with such people running Iran.

The reason for the enthusiasm in Washington and in the liberal press for Rouhani isn’t a puzzle. By portraying the man elected to the largely symbolic post of president of Iran as a man of peace, some hope to not merely defuse tensions between Iran and the West over the regime’s nuclear program but to revive support for diplomacy. Since it has long since been made clear that Iran regards such talks as merely a means to stall the West while it gets closer to achieving its nuclear goal, belief in more talks with Iran is a tough sell. But Rouhani is supposed to change all that and offer President Obama a plausible option for avoiding the use of force in order to make good on his promise never to allow Iran to go nuclear.

The only problem with this formulation is that the closer you look at it him, the less moderate he sounds. Indeed, as the Times profile makes clear, for all of the bouquets being thrown in Rouhani’s direction, it’s fairly obvious that his main virtue is that he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For eight years, Rouhani’s predecessor has been a convenient symbol of everything that is hateful about Iran’s government. Ahmadinejad’s open anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial transformed him into a cartoon character villain in the West who symbolized the extreme nature of the Iranian government. Though Rouhani’s election is seen as a rebuke to Khamenei, allowing the loopy-looking Ahmadinejad to be replaced with someone who is viewed as a moderate in the West is the smartest thing the supreme leader has done in years. As bizarre as Ahmadinejad’s rants were, he was merely the public face of a government run largely by others that embodied the same ideology he espoused.

But even the proofs offered of Rouhani’s moderation and pragmatism undermine the narrative that he offers a way out for Obama. The lead of the profile cites Rouhani’s ability to use his access to Khamenei in order to gain approval for a tentative deal that would have ended Iran’s enrichment of uranium. That was quite a feat, but as the article points out later, the achievement was meaningless. The Iranians soon reneged on their agreement in what many in Tehran admitted was part of a strategy to entice the West into talks that would help them run out the clock on their nuclear program. Agreeing to the terms that Rouhani accepted was as much a ruse as all the other deals Western diplomats thought they had reached with Iran over the years. Though the Times refloats the self-serving analysis of European diplomats that sought to vindicate their negotiating strategy in which Rouhani is depicted as an honest interlocutor who was just “too optimistic,” he was, in fact, just the star in a clever piece of theater served up by the ayatollahs.

That Rouhani is just as much if not more of a front man for Khamenei’s regime is also obvious. He was, as the Times admits, a close follower of Ayatollah Khomeini and a supporter, not a critic or opponent, of Iran’s theocratic rule. His differences with some of the powers that be in Tehran are tactical and largely aimed at improving Iran’s image in order to better fool the West, not changing its policies.

That the truth about Rouhani has nothing much to do with his image is immaterial to those who want to allow Iran’s nuclear threat to become a reality. After eight years of scaring the West with Ahmadinejad, Iran has finally caught on to the wisdom of offering it a “good cop” who can be sold as the man to talk to in order to get a nuclear deal that will absolve Obama of his promise and remove the possibility of a U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities. Doing so could gain them as much as a year or even more if they play their cards right in the coming months during which they can get even closer to the nuclear capability that will render any talk of Western action moot. No wonder those who wish to revive the talk of containment that President Obama renounced last year have made Rouhani their man of the hour.

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Would Americans Release Terrorist Killers?

Most Americans aren’t paying that much attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to re-start Middle East peace talks. To the extent that they are, they understand there’s almost no chance the effort will succeed and that the country would be far better off if Kerry were devoting his efforts to more urgent and dangerous issues such as Egypt, Syria, or the nuclear threat from Iran. But even given that, there is a sense that an all-out push for more negotiations will do no harm and is an intrinsic good no matter what must be done to get them going. But there is one condition to achieve this goal that has been pushed by the secretary that should prick the conscience of the American people: the U.S. demand that Israel release more than one hundred Palestinian terrorists, including many with blood on their hands.

In an effort to avoid getting blamed for spoiling Kerry’s party, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to this painful concession. Despite the furious opposition of many in his Cabinet and government as well as the families of the victims of terrorist attacks, he has reluctantly mustered a majority for the measure. As I wrote last week, unlike the mass release of prisoners in order to ransom prisoners like kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, which is defensible, it is hard to justify Netanyahu’s decision from an Israeli point of view. But it should be remembered that as much as Israel could have said no to Kerry, this is an outrageous Palestinian demand that was championed by the United States. That means Americans should pause and wonder whether they would ever give a moment’s consideration to doing what their government is twisting Israel’s arm to do. Would we ever think of releasing any of those convicted and currently serving long jail sentences for involvement in the 9/11 attacks or any other terrorist assault on the United States and its citizens? Not a chance.

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Most Americans aren’t paying that much attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to re-start Middle East peace talks. To the extent that they are, they understand there’s almost no chance the effort will succeed and that the country would be far better off if Kerry were devoting his efforts to more urgent and dangerous issues such as Egypt, Syria, or the nuclear threat from Iran. But even given that, there is a sense that an all-out push for more negotiations will do no harm and is an intrinsic good no matter what must be done to get them going. But there is one condition to achieve this goal that has been pushed by the secretary that should prick the conscience of the American people: the U.S. demand that Israel release more than one hundred Palestinian terrorists, including many with blood on their hands.

In an effort to avoid getting blamed for spoiling Kerry’s party, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to this painful concession. Despite the furious opposition of many in his Cabinet and government as well as the families of the victims of terrorist attacks, he has reluctantly mustered a majority for the measure. As I wrote last week, unlike the mass release of prisoners in order to ransom prisoners like kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, which is defensible, it is hard to justify Netanyahu’s decision from an Israeli point of view. But it should be remembered that as much as Israel could have said no to Kerry, this is an outrageous Palestinian demand that was championed by the United States. That means Americans should pause and wonder whether they would ever give a moment’s consideration to doing what their government is twisting Israel’s arm to do. Would we ever think of releasing any of those convicted and currently serving long jail sentences for involvement in the 9/11 attacks or any other terrorist assault on the United States and its citizens? Not a chance.

That’s a point that is never raised in the news accounts of Kerry’s negotiations or even posed to the secretary when he deigns to be questioned by a diplomatic press corps that has given him kid-glove treatment. Yet why not?

The fact is the United States would never consider such a request for a minute, no matter the diplomatic gains to be garnered from that sort of concession elsewhere in the globe. The American position is, as the Obama administration likes to put it, that anyone who attacks U.S. citizens will be chased down to the ends of the earth and either be snuffed by a drone attack that has the personal approval of the commander in chief or be locked away for good if they are captured.

Imagine the response from the 9/11 families or the survivors of any terror attack to the suggestion that the killers of their relatives be released. Would it be much different than those of Israelis as reported by the New York Times?

On Friday, Yediot Aharonot, an Israeli newspaper, published an impassioned open letter to Mr. Netanyahu from Abie Moses, whose pregnant wife and 5-year-old son, Tal, were fatally burned in a firebomb attack on their car in April 1987. Mr. Moses said that faced with the likely release of their killer, Mohammad Adel Hassin Daoud, “the wounds have reopened; the memories, which we live with on a daily basis, turn into physical pain, in addition to the emotional pain of coping daily with the nightmare.”

Yet Kerry ignores this pain even as he gleefully pushes Netanyahu to make his photo-op possible. Perhaps a true peace that ended the conflict with the Palestinians and the Muslim and Arab world might be worth such a sacrifice. But given the reluctance of the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and the split between the supposed moderates of Fatah that will negotiate and the Hamas rulers of Gaza that will not, the chance of that happening is virtually zero.

But even if you think Kerry’s effort is merely a Hail Mary pass that can’t make things any worse, it’s also fair to ask Americans how they can justify demanding that Israel do something they would never do themselves. The blood of the Israeli victims of terror is just as red as that of Americans. Their need for some measure of justice for the killers is no more and no less than that of Americans.

This sort of hypocrisy is inexcusable. Netanyahu has done this because Israel remains a besieged country and dependent on American support and it is understood that it is sometimes compelled to do things that are obviously against its own interests in order to avoid a fight with its superpower ally. But instead of applauding Kerry’s success in forcing Netanyahu to take this step, Americans should be ashamed. 

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Backward and Forward in Israel

Two recent stories show how to go backward and how to go forward in Israel. The first is a comic gem out of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, which has declared a major “Victory!” in its long campaign against SodaStream. BDS is bent on punishing SodaStream for locating production facilities in the West Bank. Their “victory” comes courtesy of TIAA-CREF, a financial services company best known for managing college and university retirement funds. BDS reports that the company has dropped SodaStream from its portfolio.

But wait: Nobody knows why TIAA-CREF dropped SodaStream. Some investors have not been high on the stock of late, so perhaps it was dropped because now seemed a good time to sell. Or perhaps TIAA-CREF will reveal that they divested from SodaStream out of concern for its operations in the West Bank, but BDS isn’t waiting around for announcements or actual reporting. Sydney Levy of WeDivest says that “no matter the reason TIAA-CREF dropped SodaStream, we view this as a conscientious decision.” Anna Balzer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, agrees that it doesn’t matter why TIAA-CREF sold its shares of SodaStream: “regardless of TIAA-CREF’s reasons, I think what we’re seeing is that it is increasingly unacceptable to associate in any way, to invest in, to sell products that are produced in illegal Israeli settlements.” I guess that means that if I stop eating Sabra hummus because it goes straight to my thighs, I am a participant in the BDS movement.

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Two recent stories show how to go backward and how to go forward in Israel. The first is a comic gem out of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, which has declared a major “Victory!” in its long campaign against SodaStream. BDS is bent on punishing SodaStream for locating production facilities in the West Bank. Their “victory” comes courtesy of TIAA-CREF, a financial services company best known for managing college and university retirement funds. BDS reports that the company has dropped SodaStream from its portfolio.

But wait: Nobody knows why TIAA-CREF dropped SodaStream. Some investors have not been high on the stock of late, so perhaps it was dropped because now seemed a good time to sell. Or perhaps TIAA-CREF will reveal that they divested from SodaStream out of concern for its operations in the West Bank, but BDS isn’t waiting around for announcements or actual reporting. Sydney Levy of WeDivest says that “no matter the reason TIAA-CREF dropped SodaStream, we view this as a conscientious decision.” Anna Balzer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, agrees that it doesn’t matter why TIAA-CREF sold its shares of SodaStream: “regardless of TIAA-CREF’s reasons, I think what we’re seeing is that it is increasingly unacceptable to associate in any way, to invest in, to sell products that are produced in illegal Israeli settlements.” I guess that means that if I stop eating Sabra hummus because it goes straight to my thighs, I am a participant in the BDS movement.

BDS needs to declare any victory it can because it is founded on the fantasy that Israel will one day admit that it does not deserve to exist and give up the Jewish state. What BDS wants, in other words, is to turn back the clock to before 1948, when Israel was established.

The second story, by Tablet contributor Yoav Fromer, in contrast, looks cautiously forward. Stef Wertheimer, an Israeli businessman, former Knesset member, and billionaire, recently built an industrial park in Nazareth, a city populated mainly by Israeli Arabs. The industrial park was built to “promote Arab-Jewish economic cooperation and coexistence by providing ‘quality employment’ in export-oriented industries.” Amdocs, an Israeli software and telecommunications company, is the first major outfit operating in the park. It has also been, predictably, a target of the BDS movement. The Nazareth Industrial Park is “the next great hope for social activists and business entrepreneurs who have labored to integrate Arabs into Israel’s ever-expanding high-tech sector.”

Among those social activists and business entrepreneurs are Smadar Nehab and Yossi Coten, two “former high-tech executives” who, with Sami Saadi, “a veteran CPA and social activist from the Arab town of Arraba,” founded Tsofen, “an Arab-Jewish organization promoting the integration of Israel’s Arab Citizens into its hi-tech industry, through employment and the creation of hi-tech centers.” Tsofen trains “talented Arab students to write code” and helps them find jobs at companies like Galil Software, a company based in Nazareth, “founded by predominantly Jewish investors,” that has “Arab and Druze personnel filling a range of positions from software engineers all the way up to the executive boardroom.” The vast majority of Galil’s workforce consists of non-Jews.

Tsofen’s mission is not merely to provide Israeli Arabs with high-tech jobs, however. Sami Saadi believes that giving “Jewish and Arab youths the opportunity to work together, on par,” and fostering economic cooperation, can transform Arab-Jewish relations in Israel: “How do people bring about real change? When you empower them and when you give them an outlook for the future.”

There are many contrasts between Tsofen and BDS. One seeks to create jobs, the other seeks to destroy Israel’s economy. One looks to a high-tech future in which Arabs and Jews both prosper, while the other looks to the pre-1948 past. One engages primarily in constructive activity, while the other engages primarily in propagandizing. But perhaps the most striking difference concerns their disposition toward the truth. Tsofen and those caught up in its mission concede the many obstacles to its success. They admit that they are underfunded, that the Israeli high-tech sector is not fully with them yet, that it is difficult for qualified Israeli Arabs to find work in that sector, that Arabs are skeptical of the whole enterprise. Saadi says that “Arab society is full of disappointment, and people are skeptical.” But, he adds, “they don’t really have anything to lose.” This tone of cautious hope could hardly be more different from the fantasy declarations of victory that emerge from BDS each week. On such cautious hope, it is possible to imagine building a future.

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