The U.S. political scene churns out quite a number of battle-tested campaign strategists. And we export them. Hence, when the dust settled on Israel’s surprising 2013 Knesset elections, the Forward noted that the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were felt acutely by several Americans: “[Mark] Mellman led Yesh Atid’s campaign; Finkelstein and his partner, George Birnbaum, worked on Netanyahu’s campaign; the Labor Party relied on the services of Stanley Greenberg, and Kadima hired David Eichenbaum.” So the newsworthy part of the revelation that an Obama campaign field director is in Israel working against Netanyahu’s reelection this year is not that fact itself, but rather that this group has been receiving money from John Kerry’s State Department.
As our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman notes over at the Free Beacon, Haaretz this week broke news that an American organization called OneVoice International has joined up with an Israeli organization called V15. OneVoice has received two State Department grants in the past year, and Jeremy Bird, a former national field director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, will be working with the effort from an office in Tel Aviv, according to Haaretz. The groups are believed to be behind the “anyone but Bibi” mantra floating around left-of-center political circles in the leadup to the election. Goodman writes:
While V15 has not endorsed any particular candidates, it is working to oppose Netanyahu in the March elections.
“We’ve formed a partnership with [V15], but it’s important to know we’re absolutely nonpartisan,” Taler told the Washington Free Beacon. “Our biggest emphasis and focus right now is just getting people out to vote.”
OneVoice said in a press release on Tuesday that it is teaming up with V15 because Israel “need[s] a prime minister and a government who will be responsive to the people.”
It is tempting to see this story in light of the ongoing feud between Obama and Netanyahu in which both men have stumbled in trying to win each news cycle devoted to the drama. But if Obama even knows who Bird is, it’s doubtful he’s taking any direction from the president. It’s not inappropriate for Bird to follow in the footsteps of numerous other campaign veterans to find some work in Israel during American off-years.
What is more interesting is that the group involved has been receiving grants from the State Department. OneVoice didn’t have a convincing rejoinder to the news, so they gave Goodman the following canned response:
Taler said the group is not using this money for its Israeli election-related efforts.
“No government funding has gone toward any of the activities we’re doing right now whatsoever,” she said.
It’s silly, because of course money is fungible. But what could she say? More concerning is that this fits into a topic we’ve covered here extensively: the peace process, especially as led by John Kerry, resembles nothing so much as a diplomatic protection racket. There was his claim to Israeli TV that the alternative to more Israeli concessions was a “third intifada,” giving the prospect of anti-Semitic violence dangerous credibility. (The country seemed on the verge of just such an intifada after Kerry’s talks predictably failed.) And then there was the American warning that Kerry’s diplomatic initiative was the only thing holding back EU sanctions against Israel. Should Kerry come away without a deal, there would be no stopping European retaliatory actions against Israel.
The message coming from the State Department was always clear. What gave the threats teeth was the fact that Obama has been trying to unseat Netanyahu from the beginning. It wasn’t just about European sanctions or whitewashing Palestinian violence. It was also about the Obama team’s personal obsession with undermining Bibi.
And this obsession is shared widely. Last year I quoted a disturbing anecdote from an August column by Chemi Shalev, who wrote: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.” Now compare that with what Jeremy Bird—the Obama campaign field director involved in the campaign to unseat Netanyahu—said when Netanyahu was invited by House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress: “What do you think Adelson promised GOP in exchange for this insane BiBi House visit? Blatant attempt to bolster Israeli PM before elections”.
The same paranoia and psychological projection seems to infect all those involved in Obama’s political campaigns: they assume American Jewish donor money is behind all opposition. It does appear to be an escalation, however, for the State Department to be pressuring Netanyahu into making concessions to the Palestinians while funding groups working to defeat him. I would say it’s a conflict of interests, but it’s more like a concert of interests—all the levers of the Obama administration’s anti-Netanyahu efforts pulling in the same direction.
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Kerry’s Diplomatic Protection Racket and Netanyahu’s Reelection Campaign
Must-Reads from Magazine
Tucker Carlson fetes an Israel-hater.
Strange ideological changes are afoot over at the Fox News Channel. The latest sign came Tuesday, with a Max Blumenthal appearance during prime time.
The anti-Israel author and agitator–whose virulent hatred of the Jewish state has long made him a darling of neo-Nazis and Iranian state television–looked delighted to be on the network, courtesy of Tucker Carlson. And with good reason. Here was a fine opportunity to hawk his conspiratorial vision of Israel and U.S. foreign policy to a prime-time conservative audience that is normally well-disposed toward Jews. (Full disclosure: I used to work for the Wall Street Journal, whose parent company and Fox News share common ownership.)
The topic was the Justice Department’s decision on Monday requiring the Kremlin propaganda outlet Russia Today (RT) to register as a foreign agent. “It’s no defense of the content of RT,” Carlson said, “to wonder why journalists who are rightly concerned about any government attempt to regulate their product are applauding the regulation of this cable channel. Why is that?”
Blumenthal framed the DOJ move as an attempt to silence brave dissidents such as, well, Max Blumenthal: “I go on RT fairly regularly, and the reason I do so is because, while the three major cable networks are promoting bombing and sanctioning half the world, at least the non-compliant nations, RT is questioning that.” Yes, and when RT’s “questioning” comes up short on facts, the network resorts to using video-game footage to claim that Washington is supporting Islamic State.
There was no pushback from Carlson, usually known for his spunky, combative style. Nor did he bother to present a charitable version of the opposing argument. In the Washington Post, Brookings fellow and COMMENTARY contributor James Kirchick has written a strong brief for why the U.S. should make it harder for RT to access American airwaves. Yet I’m not quite persuaded of the wisdom of such restrictions. I worry about opening the door, even an inch, to government regulation of broadcast speech, even if that speech comes from an adversarial, autocratic regime. Perhaps such moves make sense in small, fragile, Kremlin-endangered states that lack a robust indigenous media. But in the U.S., with its large and diverse media market, the best antidote to Moscow’s lies is truthful reporting.
But never mind all that. What Blumenthal wanted to talk about were the real sources of malign foreign influence in Washington: the Jews. Or as Blumenthal put it to Carlson, “the Israel lobby and organizations like [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], which have been promoting a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, war on Lebanon, war on Iran, which is [sic] not required for some reason to register as a foreign agent, and I don’t why that is.”
Carlson didn’t offer a single critical note in response to any of this. Instead, he went on to underscore Blumenthal’s points, raising a knowing eyebrow here and there as his guest cast the pro-Israel lobby–a domestic, small-“d” democratic movement reflecting a broad opinion consensus among U.S. voters–as equally if not more malign than Putin’s infowar operations. And Blumenthal said all this, unchallenged, not on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now–but on Fox News.
The Blumenthal interview followed an earlier segment, in which Carlson approvingly quoted Noam Chomsky to the effect that American democracy represents a form of “manufactured consent”–i.e., that it is merely a more subtle form of dictatorship than those found in obviously unfree societies. I wonder: Which icon of leftist crankery will Carlson elevate next? Naomi Klein? Slavoj Zizek? The ghost of Howard Zinn? Tune in to Fox to find out.
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What’s so threatening about mainstream Israeli opinion?
The growing divide between Israeli and American Jews was a major topic of conversation at this week’s annual meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was also the topic of a lengthy feature in Haaretz, which largely blamed the Israeli government. Inter alia, it quoted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro as saying, in reference to that majority of American Jews who identify as non-Orthodox and politically liberal, “There is an idea that has some currency in certain circles around the Israeli government that says, ‘You know what, we can write off that segment of American Jewry because in a couple of generations their children or grandchildren will assimilate.’”
I agree that the idea of writing off this segment of American Jewry has some currency in Israel. But in most cases, it’s due less to fantasies about liberal Jews disappearing than to a belief that Israel will have to do without them whether it wants to or not, because liberal Jews can no longer be depended on for even the most minimal level of support. And by that, I don’t mean support for any specific Israeli policy, but for something far more basic: Israel’s right to be heard, by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
Nothing better illustrates this than recent decisions by two campus Hillels to bar mainstream Israeli speakers from addressing Jewish students. At Princeton, it was Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, and at Stanford, it was a group of Israeli Arab veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. I can understand Hillel refusing to host speakers from the radical fringes. But how are Jewish students supposed to learn anything about Israel if campus Hillels won’t even let them hear from representatives of two of the country’s most mainstream institutions – its elected government and its army?
Both Hillels later termed their decisions a “mistake” – most likely under pressure from Hillel International, whose CEO, Eric Fingerhut, was the lead author on Princeton Hillel’s apology. But that doesn’t change the fact that at two leading universities on opposite sides of the country, the Hillel directors, both non-Orthodox rabbis, initially thought canceling the speeches in response to progressive students’ objections was a reasonable decision. Princeton’s Julie Roth thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear an official Israeli government representative try to explain the government’s policies. And Stanford’s Jessica Kirschner – backed, incredibly, by the university’s “pro-Israel” association – thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear from non-Jewish Israelis who don’t agree that Israel is an apartheid state.
American Jewish rabbis and lay leaders obviously have the right to disagree with Israeli policies. But how is any relationship possible if one side won’t even allow the other to be heard? Gagging and boycotts Israel can get from its enemies; it doesn’t need American Jews for that. So if Israel can’t even rely on them to enable interested students to be exposed to mainstream Israeli views, what exactly are they contributing to the Israel-Diaspora relationship? And why, under these circumstances, should Israel have any interest in accommodating their concerns about, say, prayer arrangements at the Western Wall?
Moreover, consider who did step in to allow the Princeton and Stanford speeches to take place as planned – the Orthodox Chabad movement, which, on both campuses, volunteered to host the speakers on very short notice. If Orthodox groups are the only ones in America these days even willing to provide a venue for Israelis who deviate from progressive orthodoxy, why wouldn’t Israel give greater weight to Orthodox views than non-Orthodox ones?
Nor is this problem limited to college campuses. The most salient example – one worth revisiting precisely because both sides consider it a turning point in the relationship – was the dispute over the Iranian nuclear deal.
Given the almost wall-to-wall Israeli consensus that the deal was dangerous (despite deep disagreements over how best to oppose it), many Israelis felt no less betrayed by American Jewish support for the deal than many American Jews felt when Israel reneged on the Western Wall compromise two years later. As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told Haaretz, “We went to American Jews and told them that the Iran deal endangers 6 million Jews in Israel, and that it’s not an American political issue, but rather, a matter of Jewish existence, and I don’t need to tell you what happened.” Indeed, absent that sense of betrayal, I suspect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have been more willing to rebuff ultra-Orthodox pressure over the Western Wall.
But policy disagreements I can accept, even on issues of existential importance. What I found far more troubling was liberal American Jews’ reaction to Netanyahu’s efforts to lobby against the deal, which Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz accurately described as follows: “Considering that 70 percent of American Jews had voted for Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s efforts to lead a revolt against him were seen by many in the Jewish community as unconscionable.” Indeed, many prominent American Jews vociferously objected to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the deal, using terms like “humiliated” and “angered” to describe their feelings. Yet somehow, I haven’t heard a word from them against European leaders’ efforts today to lobby Congress to defy President Trump and preserve the deal.
In short, many liberal American Jews didn’t just oppose the Israeli government’s policy, they even objected to the government’s efforts to publicly advocate for its chosen policy. Effectively, they declared that Israel had no right to make its views heard in America if doing so discomfited them.
Many liberal Jews remain staunch supporters of Israel. Yet the ranks of the Roths and Kirschners seem to be growing every year. And though Israel and Diaspora Jewry can survive disagreements about policy, if liberal American Jews aren’t even willing to hear what Israeli Jews think, and provide a platform for others to hear it, the relationship will be over. I continue to think that would be tragedy. But you cannot have a relationship with people who don’t even acknowledge your right to speak – even if those people are your family.
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Making War More Deadly
The International Committee of the Red Cross, self-appointed guardian of the laws of war, has embarked on an exciting new online project: destroying the very laws it ostensibly seeks to protect. Of course, the ICRC would put it differently; it would say it’s teaching the laws of war. The problem is that the “laws” it teaches aren’t the actual laws of war, as codified in international treaties, but a made-up version that effectively denies countries any right of self-defense against enemies that fight from positions inside civilian populations. And it is thereby teaching anyone unwilling to concede the right of self-defense that the laws of war should simply be ignored.
The website has four sections – “behavior in war,” “medical mission,” “torture” and cultural property.” But the big problem is the first one, which consists of three questions users must answer correctly to receive a “medal of integrity.”
Question number one: “You’re a military commander. The enemy is hiding in a populated village across the front line. Can you attack?” The correct answer, according to the website, is “no.”
This is simply false. The laws of war do not grant immunity to enemy soldiers simply because they choose to hide among civilians, nor do they mandate avoiding any military action that might result in civilian casualties. They merely require that civilians not be deliberately targeted (the principle of distinction), that reasonable efforts be made to minimize civilian casualties, and that any such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit of the operation (the principle of proportionality).
The second question was, “What if you know for a fact that many civilians would be killed? Can you attack?” Since the ICRC had already ruled in the first question that attacking populated villages is never permissible, I’m not sure what purpose this question served; it would only make sense if the answer to the first question had been “yes” and this were a follow-up meant to explore the limits of the license to attack populated villages. But let’s ignore that incongruity and examine the question on its own merits.
The ICRC’s answer, of course, was “no.” But the correct answer is “insufficient information.” As noted, the laws of war don’t prohibit civilian casualties as collateral damage of a legitimate military operation. They do, however, require that such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit, and the question doesn’t supply the information necessary to determine whether this attack would be proportionate. For instance, how many civilian casualties does “many” actually mean – 10? 100? 1,000? Even more important, what price will your own side pay if it doesn’t attack? For instance, how many of your own civilians might be killed if you don’t stop the enemy’s rocket and mortar fire?
The laws of war were never meant to be a suicide pact; they do not require countries to let their own civilians be slaughtered in order to avoid harming enemy civilians. But in the ICRC’s version, they do. Its website teaches users that military action which harms enemy civilians is never permissible, so all an enemy has to do to slaughter the other side’s civilians with impunity is set up shop among its own civilian population. By that logic, no action should have been taken to stop, say, the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis, because it operated out of populated villages and couldn’t be dislodged without civilian casualties. Is that truly what the ICRC wants?
Incidentally, using civilians as human shields is a war crime in itself, but you’d never guess that from the website. The implication of the ICRC’s questions is that the laws of war actually encourage using civilians as human shields, because doing so buys you immunity from attack under those very same laws.
Before moving to the third question, the website provides the average scores of respondents from 16 countries on the first two. Unsurprisingly, Israel had the lowest percentage of respondents who gave the “right” answers (followed by America). That’s because Israelis, who are regularly attacked by enemies operating from populated villages, understand better than most that the “right” answers would require them to sit with folded hands while their enemies kill them.
This is highly relevant to the website’s third and final question: “The Geneva Conventions, the core of the international humanitarian law, are now 70 years old. Warfare today is very different; does it still make sense to impose limits in war?” The ICRC’s answer, which I agree with, is “yes.” But limits on warfare will gain wide acceptance only if they still allow for the possibility of effective self-defense. If obeying the laws of war requires letting your own civilians be slaughtered with impunity, no country under attack would agree to do so.
That is precisely the danger of the ICRC’s position. The real laws of war set a challenging but achievable goal: reducing civilian casualties to the minimum consistent with effective military action. But the ICRC’s made-up laws set an impossible goal: avoiding any civilian casualties whatsoever, even if this precludes effective military action. Thus any country that engages in military action would end up violating the ICRC’s laws no matter what steps it takes to minimize civilian casualties. And if so, why even bother to take those steps?
Indeed, this very argument has raged in Israel for years now. Despite Israel’s great efforts to comply with the real laws of war – it “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries,” a group of high-ranking Western military experts wrote in a report on the 2014 Gaza war – it is repeatedly accused by the UN, “human rights” organizations, and world leaders of grossly violating those laws. Hence many Israelis wonder why they should keep making those efforts, which often increase the risk to their own soldiers and civilians, if they get no international credit for doing so.
The ICRC is not only encouraging terrorists to operate from among civilian populations by granting them immunity; it is also discouraging efforts to comply with the civilian protection measures mandated by the real laws of war. In other words, it’s actually making civilian casualties more likely on two counts – and thereby betraying its own humanitarian mission.
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The South Park Presidency.
Twitter’s new, 280-character format hasn’t been a boon to presidential dignity. On Saturday, while traveling in Vietnam ahead of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Donald Trump decided to chaff North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, on the social-media platform. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,'” the president tweeted, “when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”
I know we aren’t supposed to get worked up about the president’s tweets. This is who Trump is, his more conscientious defenders argue, and he isn’t going to change. Better, then, to focus on strategy and policy, where he’s making some good moves. I have been trying to look at the policy upside, believe me (as the Tweep-in-Chief might say). I have cheered Trump’s choice of Neil Gorsuch to take Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court; his vision of a liberal but limited international order that respects sovereignty and nationhood; his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic, UNESCO; his proposed corporate tax cuts; and more. And I will continue to give policy credit where it is due.
But the tweets aren’t insignificant. Sometimes they are harmless. But too often they cheapen Trump’s noble democratic office and degrade the American voters who entrusted him with it. Occasionally they undermine his own administration’s policies and the national interest. The Kim Jong-un tweet falls into this third category. Here was Trump’s signature mixture of childish insult and narcissistic grievance applied to the world’s least free, and most dangerous, rogue state.
Kim deserves ridicule, to be sure, and liberals are wrong to get queasy about “disrespecting” the evil ruler of the Hermit Kingdom. Disrespect isn’t the issue. The problem was that Trump made light of a regime that is no laughing matter. This a regime that has brought the gulag–a system that should have been buried in the last century–into the 21st century. As Human Rights Watch noted in a harrowing report,
North Korea discriminates against people and their families on political grounds, and systematically represses basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of association, assembly, and expression, and targets those involved in any sort of religious activities. The government also uses forced labor from ordinary citizens and prisoners to control the people and sustain its economy. In preparation for the 7th Congress of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea held in May 2016, the government compelled its people to undergo a 70-day ‘battle’ of forced labor to complete work targets. . . . [S]ystematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence, constituting crimes against humanity. North Korea’s rights record has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and the Security Council.
Kim’s regime also poses an existential threat to America’s closest allies in East Asia and, given its recent advances in missile technology, a potentially catastrophic nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland. Yet, as a matter of public diplomacy, Trump’s chaffing risks reducing this threat into a silly feud between characters out of a South Park cartoon or a Judd Apatow movie. The day may soon come when the Trump administration needs to win the support of friends and rivals in the region, as well as the American people, for military action to contain or neutralize the Pyongyang regime. Kidding around with Kim risks undermining American seriousness.
But the president’s chaotic communications strategy, his conservative defenders will argue, is ordered to our chaotic, high-tech, postmodern world. Look how far it has brought him already, from reality-TV charlatanry all the way to the Oval Office. Perhaps they are right. Then again, conservatives used to hold that no amount of technological change would alter the fundamentals–of human nature, of leadership, of the life of nations in war and peace. Now that core insight has fallen out of fashion among the Trumpian right. They better hope that the nation won’t pay too high a price for the loss.
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Moore, Duterte, and the NSA
On the first COMMENTARY podcast of the week, the gang (minus Noah Rothman) covers the accusations of sexual misconduct against the Roy Moore, his strange defense, and his even stranger defenders. We also talk about President Trump’s press conference with Rodrigo Duterte and the explosive news of a massive cyberattack on the NSA. Give a listen.
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