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Posts For: January 24, 2014

Obama and Kerry’s Lobby in Israel

In the course of the past month, a persistent campaign appears to have been taking place, away from public attention, to change the thinking of Israel’s defense establishment. The State Department’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, and his officials have been meeting with a number of Israeli security personnel and IDF generals to discuss their thinking on future Israeli territorial compromise. Indyk, who was also part of Middle East peace negotiations under President Clinton, has reportedly been seeking to convince Israel’s defense officials of the wisdom of plans that would seek to bring about a full Israeli withdrawal from such key strategic areas as the Jordan Valley. To be sure, these lobbying efforts are not being focused on Israeli parliamentarians, but they aim to impact the position of a constituency no less politically decisive.    

There is a great irony in all this. As Seth Mandel highlighted yesterday, amidst the ongoing battle of wills over Iran sanctions, the Obama administration currently appears to be operating under the impression that the Israeli government is telling the American Jewish community what to think and that, in turn, American Jews are determining what congressmen believe and how Congress ultimately votes. As has already been pointed out, it is bizarre and disturbing that the administration would buy into this version of events over the far more simple explanation that members of Congress, perfectly able to think for themselves, might have just concluded that the Obama administration’s policy of holding off on Iran sanctions is fundamentally flawed. Either way, what officials appear to so object to is the notion that a foreign government would seek to influence U.S. policy via another constituency. The point being that if the government of one state wishes to have a say on the policies of another, then the proper and above-board way to approach this is through open and direct diplomatic channels.

Fine. But how then to explain the Obama administration’s own efforts to determine events in Israel, by bypassing the Israeli government and seeking to influence a third party? As the Daily Beast has reported, the reservist generals involved in those meetings that have taken place so far have not given any reason to believe that Indyk and his team are being particularly forceful or aggressive in how they have approached this strategy. Yet, by pursuing a sustained campaign of pushing State Department views on territorial compromise in the Jordan Valley to Israel’s security establishment, Indyk and his officials are not only seeking to determine the views of those who advise the Israeli government on these matters, but they are also lobbying a group in Israel who have a tremendous amount of leverage over Israeli public opinion.

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In the course of the past month, a persistent campaign appears to have been taking place, away from public attention, to change the thinking of Israel’s defense establishment. The State Department’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, and his officials have been meeting with a number of Israeli security personnel and IDF generals to discuss their thinking on future Israeli territorial compromise. Indyk, who was also part of Middle East peace negotiations under President Clinton, has reportedly been seeking to convince Israel’s defense officials of the wisdom of plans that would seek to bring about a full Israeli withdrawal from such key strategic areas as the Jordan Valley. To be sure, these lobbying efforts are not being focused on Israeli parliamentarians, but they aim to impact the position of a constituency no less politically decisive.    

There is a great irony in all this. As Seth Mandel highlighted yesterday, amidst the ongoing battle of wills over Iran sanctions, the Obama administration currently appears to be operating under the impression that the Israeli government is telling the American Jewish community what to think and that, in turn, American Jews are determining what congressmen believe and how Congress ultimately votes. As has already been pointed out, it is bizarre and disturbing that the administration would buy into this version of events over the far more simple explanation that members of Congress, perfectly able to think for themselves, might have just concluded that the Obama administration’s policy of holding off on Iran sanctions is fundamentally flawed. Either way, what officials appear to so object to is the notion that a foreign government would seek to influence U.S. policy via another constituency. The point being that if the government of one state wishes to have a say on the policies of another, then the proper and above-board way to approach this is through open and direct diplomatic channels.

Fine. But how then to explain the Obama administration’s own efforts to determine events in Israel, by bypassing the Israeli government and seeking to influence a third party? As the Daily Beast has reported, the reservist generals involved in those meetings that have taken place so far have not given any reason to believe that Indyk and his team are being particularly forceful or aggressive in how they have approached this strategy. Yet, by pursuing a sustained campaign of pushing State Department views on territorial compromise in the Jordan Valley to Israel’s security establishment, Indyk and his officials are not only seeking to determine the views of those who advise the Israeli government on these matters, but they are also lobbying a group in Israel who have a tremendous amount of leverage over Israeli public opinion.

Leading Israeli defense officials regularly and publicly make their views on the key security matters of the day widely known within the Israeli public discourse. In a country where the military plays such a visible role in the day-to-day survival of the state and the safety of its citizens, the views of these men matter and carry extraordinary clout. U.S. officials undoubtedly realize that if they can play a decisive role in shaping what these individuals believe, then they stand a considerable chance of influencing where much of wider Israeli society stands on these issues, thus undercutting the negotiating position of Israel’s elected government.

And this is not the first time that the Obama administration has tried such lobbying of Israel’s military. Last month there were reports circulating of Indyk and his staff seeking to dissuade IDF generals from publicly speaking out about the concerns they have regarding Israel’s security and Secretary of State Kerry’s peace plan.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have made very clear that Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley is simply not a feasible option. Such a move would leave Israel dangerously exposed on its eastern border, with nothing to prevent the flow of arms from as far as Iran all the way to the hands of militants sitting on the West Bank’s hilltops over looking Ben Gurion Airport and the major population centers of Israel’s coastal plain.

Yet, from what has been leaked from negotiations so far, it is becoming apparent that Kerry and those of his diplomats involved in negotiations may well be sympathetic to Palestinian demands for a total Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley. Sensing that the Netanyahu government has no intention of compromising on this aspect of Israel’s security, it would now appear that the State Department strategy is to win friends and influence people in a place that will give them the most leverage over the Israeli government and its negotiating position.       

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The Boycott-Israel Movement Targets Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson is used to being on what liberals consider the “right” side of an issue. She was supportive of Barack Obama and even joined the “celebrity army,” as Politico characterized it, to get Americans to board the leaky ship of ObamaCare. But now she is finding out what it means to be on the other side. No, she hasn’t risked the new Hollywood blacklist to become a conservative. She has merely undertaken a professional association with an Israeli company.

In early January, SodaStream announced it had hired Johansson as a “global brand ambassador,” to include a commercial to air on Super Bowl Sunday. To the emerging boycott-Israel crowd, the partnership was infuriating: SodaStream has a plant in the West Bank. Johansson probably thought this was a win-win: she can proudly promote an Israeli company (Johansson is Jewish) that also helps the Palestinian population by offering them jobs at higher wages as well as benefits and an on-site mosque.

But if so, Johansson misunderstood Israel’s critics: they do not seek the improvement of Palestinian lives, only the harassment of Israeli ones. And the SodaStream controversy is a case in point. The New York Times reports on it today, and notes that Oxfam International, an anti-poverty charity for which Johansson is also an “ambassador,” took a shot at the actress for her association with the Israeli company. From the Times:

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Scarlett Johansson is used to being on what liberals consider the “right” side of an issue. She was supportive of Barack Obama and even joined the “celebrity army,” as Politico characterized it, to get Americans to board the leaky ship of ObamaCare. But now she is finding out what it means to be on the other side. No, she hasn’t risked the new Hollywood blacklist to become a conservative. She has merely undertaken a professional association with an Israeli company.

In early January, SodaStream announced it had hired Johansson as a “global brand ambassador,” to include a commercial to air on Super Bowl Sunday. To the emerging boycott-Israel crowd, the partnership was infuriating: SodaStream has a plant in the West Bank. Johansson probably thought this was a win-win: she can proudly promote an Israeli company (Johansson is Jewish) that also helps the Palestinian population by offering them jobs at higher wages as well as benefits and an on-site mosque.

But if so, Johansson misunderstood Israel’s critics: they do not seek the improvement of Palestinian lives, only the harassment of Israeli ones. And the SodaStream controversy is a case in point. The New York Times reports on it today, and notes that Oxfam International, an anti-poverty charity for which Johansson is also an “ambassador,” took a shot at the actress for her association with the Israeli company. From the Times:

In a statement added Wednesday to a web page on Ms. Johansson’s work for the charity, Oxfam said that while it “respects the independence of our ambassadors,” the group also “believes that businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.” For that reason, the statement concluded, “We have made our concerns known to Ms. Johansson and we are now engaged in a dialogue on these important issues.”

This is economic illiteracy of the highest order. And the Palestinian workers there would tell them so, if they would ask–as JTA did for a story last year summing up the issue with its apt headline: “In SodaStream boycott push, Palestinians may be the victims.” So is Oxfam willing to impoverish Palestinians because of its opposition to Israel? That sounds like a terribly irresponsible position, especially for an organization devoted to alleviating poverty.

But as irresponsible as it is, Oxfam is free to choose its causes. Scarlett Johansson, according to the boycott-and-blacklist-happy left, is not. The Times notes that the D.C.-based Palestine Center’s Yousef Munayyer declared that Johansson cannot represent both Oxfam and SodaStream: “One relationship must end.” (Johansson probably also didn’t expect that pro-Palestinian voices in the West would propose measures that would simultaneously hurt her livelihood and the livelihood of Palestinians, but such is the reality of today’s anti-Israel obsessives.)

But perhaps the most surprising element of the controversy for Johansson is the reaction of Jewish voices. Earlier this month the Forward joined the chorus of scolds, producing this fairly remarkable passage:

In the “Behind the Scenes” video for the new Super Bowl ad, Johansson announces that her “favorite thing about SodaStream is that I don’t feel guilty when I enjoy beverages at home.” While it’s true that SodaStream has some terrific guilt-easing benefits — it’s reusable, pays for itself, and tastes great — it also has a pile of guilt-inducing disadvantages worth considering. And with the New York Times comparing Johansson’s new role at SodaStream to those of Jennifer Aniston-Smartwater and George Clooney-Nespresso — in other words, Johansson will soon become SodaStream — there is all the more reason for Johansson to do some serious research into what she’s advertising. For one who is already so politically active — not only on a national level, but also internationally (Johansson is also the “global ambassador” for Oxfam) — this seems like a poor choice.

Advertising executive and consultant on the deal Alex Bogusky was quoted as saying that “using [Johansson’s] celebrity…can really normalize the machine and the process.” While she’s openly gunning for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for 2016, Johansson would do well to realize that “normalizing” the Israeli occupation is a bad use of her celebrity.

Here is Johansson asserting that she is proud to represent this Israeli company, and the Forward telling her that maybe she shouldn’t be. Because while it may seem like the company is an economic boon to Palestinians and a model of multicultural cooperation and integration (because it is), her critics say SodaStream is taking advantage of her celebrity endorsement to “normalize the machine” of Israeli malevolence.

There is also the suggestion that she might have to choose between SodaStream and Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, which would only be true if Clinton would be embarrassed, like the Forward, to be associated with Israeli companies that take great care of hundreds of Palestinian employees. Maybe that’s the case, but Clinton certainly hasn’t said so. More likely, it’s merely the fervent wish of the boycotters and their allies, so bravely working to prevent Israel’s “normalization.”

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The NSA and a “Full Public Accounting”

So far most congressional Republican leaders have been pretty staunch in their support for the extraordinarily valuable intelligence-gathering programs that Edward Snowden has irresponsibly revealed. But there is another, more libertarian and isolationist faction of the party–the Rand Paul wing–which has a different take. Its views are evident from a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee via voice vote at its meeting in Washington.

The resolution in question denounces the NSA’s collection of metadata (recording connections among phone numbers but not the content of calls) by claiming that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a view at odds with many (though not all) of the federal judges who have looked at the program.

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So far most congressional Republican leaders have been pretty staunch in their support for the extraordinarily valuable intelligence-gathering programs that Edward Snowden has irresponsibly revealed. But there is another, more libertarian and isolationist faction of the party–the Rand Paul wing–which has a different take. Its views are evident from a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee via voice vote at its meeting in Washington.

The resolution in question denounces the NSA’s collection of metadata (recording connections among phone numbers but not the content of calls) by claiming that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a view at odds with many (though not all) of the federal judges who have looked at the program.

Going even further, the resolution claims that “unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society.” That conveniently ignores the fact that (a) our democracy has survived just fine over the past decade and (b) that the metadata program has been well warranted by the need to stop al-Qaeda from attacking us–something that (no coincidence) also hasn’t occurred over the past decade.

Based on these unwarranted assumptions, the RNC reaches a hyperbolic conclusion: “the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs.” You mean the RNC feels that the “full public accounting” provided by Edward Snowden is insufficient? The Republican Party leaders would like to see more irresponsible disclosures of our most covert intelligence-gathering programs?

Republicans have already done a good job over the past decade in squandering their traditional advantage in the national-security arena–for example by supporting sequestration, which could have a devastating impact on our military readiness and by not supporting strong action to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Now a certain segment of the GOP appears determined to get to the left of President Obama in the war on terrorism.

Earlier I called this the Rand Paul wing of the GOP; it might just as well be called the Maxine Waters wing. When Republicans see eye-to-eye with the most extreme doves in the Democratic Party, it’s time for a gut check.

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Academic Boycotters Talk Academic Freedom

Last February, Brooklyn College’s political science department was under attack for co-sponsoring a panel in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. In the heat of the controversy, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould issued a statement defending the political science department.

Among other things, she said this: “as an institution of higher education, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree.”

For this statement, President Gould became a heroine in the BDS crowd. Corey Robin, a member of Brooklyn College’s political science department and a boycott supporter, said, “in my more than twenty years as a graduate student and professor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leader of an educational institution take a more principled and courageous stand than this.” Joan Scott also commended her “courageous statement.” Pro-boycott journalist Glenn Greenwald declared, once the controversy was resolved in the political science department’s favor, that President Gould had shown that “principled leadership” works.

In other words, one year ago boycott defenders thought that when it came to fundamental principles of academic freedom, a college president can, and indeed must, speak for the college.

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Last February, Brooklyn College’s political science department was under attack for co-sponsoring a panel in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. In the heat of the controversy, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould issued a statement defending the political science department.

Among other things, she said this: “as an institution of higher education, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree.”

For this statement, President Gould became a heroine in the BDS crowd. Corey Robin, a member of Brooklyn College’s political science department and a boycott supporter, said, “in my more than twenty years as a graduate student and professor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leader of an educational institution take a more principled and courageous stand than this.” Joan Scott also commended her “courageous statement.” Pro-boycott journalist Glenn Greenwald declared, once the controversy was resolved in the political science department’s favor, that President Gould had shown that “principled leadership” works.

In other words, one year ago boycott defenders thought that when it came to fundamental principles of academic freedom, a college president can, and indeed must, speak for the college.

Fast forward about a year. More than two hundred college presidents have publicly rejected the American Studies Association’s recent vote to boycott Israel. Time to change tactics. On Thursday, Ashley Dawson, a professor of English a the City University of New York’s Graduate Center (more about him here), took to the pages of InsideHigherEd to reveal the new BDS wisdom: college presidents must not make statements in the name of their colleges. If you think that no one would make such a claim, read Dawson’s own words: “when university leaders … speak not based on their own personal opinions but in the name of the institution, they abrogate the academic freedom of their faculty members.”  

This statement is rich on more than one level. It’s rich because the boycotters would no doubt gladly accept the support of any college president who offered to defend them. It’s rich because, although they deny it, boycott proponents have lent their support to a movement that actively encourages American scholars to shun Israeli scholars. Now they complain that college presidents violate academic freedom when they speak for the institutions they lead, often in statements explicitly reaffirming “the right of academicians to voice their viewpoints.” It’s rich because they loved presidential leadership when President Gould exercised it. Can they really blame a college president for thinking it an uncontroversial corollary of any college’s mission that “efforts to curtail dialogue and academic exchange are wrongheaded and troubling”?

But I forgot to say whom I was quoting there. That was former BDS heroine, President Karen Gould, denouncing the American Studies Association boycott.

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