Words as weapons in new film ‘Diplomacy’


As American and Free French divisions closed in on Nazi-occupied Paris in late August 1944, Hitler issued a clear order to the commander of Wehrmacht troops in the French capital.

Before evacuating the City of Light, the Führer told Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz to blow up such landmarks as the Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe.

As a finishing touch, German sappers would blow up all 23 bridges across the Seine.

Von Choltitz was the right man to carry out such barbarous orders. The scion of generations of Prussian soldiers and the most highly decorated German soldier of World War II, he had proven in the destruction of Rotterdam and Sevastopol and the extermination of Crimean Jews that he would obey any order — whatever his personal reservations.

As the movie “Diplomacy” opens, it is the night of Aug. 24, 1944, stretching in to the wee hours of the following morning, and the exploding shells of the approaching Allied armies can be heard in the distance, as von Choltitz, in his headquarters at the Hotel Meurice, checks the final preparations for blowing up Paris.

Suddenly, by way of a secret passage unknown to the Germans, Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling enters. The German and the Swede had met before, and Nordling has taken upon himself the almost hopeless mission of persuading von Choltitz to ignore Hitler’s orders and evacuate the city, leaving it intact.

What follows is a nightlong battle of wits and character between von Choltitz and Nordling, on whose outcome depends the fate of the city.

Given the streams of tourists that still enjoy the glorious panorama of Paris each year, it is obvious that, in the end, the Swede convinced the general to spare the city, but in re-creating this battle of wits between the two men, the outcome feels by no means certain.

Von Choltitz is not a stupid man — he realizes that Germany has lost the war and that Hitler is teetering on the edge of insanity — but he cannot shake his reflexive obedience to a superior’s orders.

At one point, the general recalls that the most difficult order he had ever received was to liquidate all Jews on the Crimean Peninsula, but that he “executed the order in its entirety, nevertheless.”

Amid the mental and moral struggle and the uprising of French partisans in the streets outside, phone calls come from Berlin in which the Führer demands to know, “Is Paris burning?”

Still, there’s an occasional flash of sheer absurdity. Two wounded German soldiers who had managed to evade the encircling Allied troops arrive with a demand from SS Chief Heinrich Himmler.

Before the Louvre is blown up, they report, Himmler wants to extract some specific tapestries and paintings for his private collection.

In the battle of arguments between von Choltitz and Nordling, during which the Swedish envoy notes that his wife is Jewish, the German holds one trump card.

Hitler has just promulgated an edict that if any German officer should disobey his orders or desert his post, the officer’s immediate family will be executed or sent to a concentration camp.  

Von Choltitz, the father of two daughters and a newly born son, turns to Nordling and asks, “If you were in my place, what would you do?”

It is a variation on the question facing every thinking man or woman after the Holocaust. If a Jewish child had knocked on your door in the middle of the night asking for shelter, and you knew that if you took the Jew in and were caught, you and your family would likely be killed, what would you have done?

After considerable hesitation, Nordling answers truthfully, “I do not know what I would do.”

The drama inherent in the survival of perhaps the world’s most beautiful city has yielded a considerable literary output.

In the chaos surrounding the downfall of the Third Reich, von Choltitz managed to escape Hitler’s wrath. He was taken prisoner by the Allies, but was released after two years and went on to write his version of history in the book “Brennt Paris?”

This title, translated into English, was appropriated in the mid-1960s by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their best-seller, “Is Paris Burning?” The title and plotline became a movie in 1966, with a stellar cast including Orson Welles as the Swedish diplomat and Kirk Douglas (as U.S. Gen. George Patton), Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Simone Signoret, Glenn Ford and Yves Montand.

More recently, French author Cyril Gely adopted some of the material into his play “Diplomatie,” which in turn was adapted by German director Volker Schlondorff for his movie “Diplomacy.”

He also took over the two principal, and superb, actors in the play, Niels Arestrup, son of a Danish father and a French mother, as von Choltitz, and Andre Dussollier as Nordling.

Except for an occasional barked German command, the entire movie is in French with English subtitles.

Schlondorff, born in Germany but educated in France, has frequently returned to World War II themes in such movies as “The Tin Drum,” “The Ogre” and “The Ninth Day.” He is a man given to straightforward answers, as I discovered 13 years ago when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times.

“ ‘Diplomacy,’ like the play on which it is based, is not a documentary but a drama,” Schlondorff said. “Von Choltitz and Nordling knew each other, but there was no crucial all-night session, and no secret staircase leading to the general’s office.”

Furthermore, one school of thought holds that it was not Nordling, but Pierre Taittinger, head of the Paris municipal council and a collaborator during the German occupation, who persuaded von Choltitz to spare the city from destruction.

Another theory has it that von Choltitz decided that he could disobey Hitler’s orders, not through appeals to his conscience, but because the general had gradually recognized that the Führer had gone mad.

Nevertheless, by its actions, the post-war French government has given credence to the play’s central thesis. In Paris, a park and a street have been renamed in Nordling’s honor. More surprisingly, when von Choltitz died in Germany in 1964, high-ranking French officers attended his funeral.

Schlondorff said that what attracted him to the material was a chance to highlight the importance to Europe of the French-German relationship.

He criticized his country for using its economic muscle against European Union countries “we once occupied” but sees a deeper meaning in the movie.

Ultimately, he said, “What we must examine is the power of words against weapons.”

 “Diplomacy” opens Nov. 7 at the Laemmle Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5 and Claremont 5. 

Spotlight on Jewish characters in fall films


Few films with an expressly Jewish theme or Jewish characters are to be found this fall, but there will be some choice subjects onscreen.

“Sleeping with the Fishes” follows the exploits of Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez), daughter of a Latina mother and a Jewish father. Alexis is at a crossroads in her life. Disillusioned and virtually penniless after her unfaithful husband dies, she is working on a phone sex line and as a walking advertisement for an eatery. The death of an aunt brings her back to her Brooklyn childhood home and her controlling, critical Latina mother (Tony-winning Priscilla Lopez); her mild-mannered, understanding Jewish father, a dentist (Tabor Feldman); and her outlandishly offbeat sister (Ana Ortiz). At first, Alexis is desperate to hide the fact that her life is in disarray.

Writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher said she wrote the film at a time in her life when she felt as lost as her heroine and acknowledged that the story is semi-autobiographical. Her father, a retired dentist, is a Polish Jew from Brooklyn, and her mother, who worked as his hygienist, is a Puerto Rican Catholic who converted to Judaism. Fisher said she and her sister were brought up Jewish. 

“We went to temple, we did our High Holidays, we went to Hebrew school. I mean, we did everything that the other Jewish kids did. We’re Reform, so it wasn’t as strict. We’re not kosher; we didn’t keep a kosher home. That would have been almost next to impossible with my mother’s cooking skills, and the other thing is that my dad was a little more lenient as far as not pushing us to have a bat mitzvah, because we really didn’t have such a tight circle of friends from the temple.”   

In fact, Fisher said, she felt somewhat rejected by both cultures. “There was less acceptance of mixed couples back in the day,” she said, “and because of that, and because of the conversion of Catholicism to Judaism, a lot of the kids at temple didn’t really see my sister and myself as Jewish people. They didn’t feel that we came from the background that they came from.”  

She added, “And because my mom made a choice, don’t ask why, to not teach us Spanish, when we were around our Latino family, we really had, sort of, barriers and walls up, because they didn’t accept us either, in a way, because we didn’t speak the language — we didn’t know the culture. We grew up with a completely different upbringing from the rest of my family. So, my sister and I always felt really confused and sort of left behind and had to make our way with a smorgasbord of different kinds of friends. It was hard.”

Nevertheless, Fisher finds much in common in the Latino and Jewish traditions.  “The similarities, to me, are going back to the family ties. Both my parents, there’s such a bond within their families. It’s the culture; it’s the food; it’s the insanely over-opinionated parents. It’s just the closeness, almost to the point of suffocating, and, at the same time, there’s just so much love and unity, at least from my experience. On the flip side, the differences, although they weren’t brought up often, when it did come up, it was striking.”  

Fisher said she wants her audiences to feel as though they’ve heard a different voice. “And then, of course, I want audiences to walk out and just feel like, at the end of the day, we’re all the same. We all universally have the same problems, the same insecurities, the same issues with our parents, and, really, it’s up to us to make that choice to turn our lives around.”  

“Sleeping with the Fishes” will be released on DVD Oct. 7


A cat-and-mouse negotiation in a Paris hotel between Wehrmacht commander Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier) over the fate of the French capital as Germany faces defeat is the focal point of the film “Diplomacy.” The movie is adapted from a hit play staged in 2011, and though the particular meeting depicted in the story is fictional, it is based on historical fact. As the Allied forces were about to liberate Paris, Hitler actually ordered that, if defeat was inevitable, the city was to be completely destroyed, and the Germans had explosives planted at key sites for that purpose.

Niels Arestrup as Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz in “Diplomacy.” Photo: Jérôme Prébois

Filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff is quoted in the production notes as saying the general and the diplomat really did meet several times to discuss an exchange of German prisoners for French resistance fighters and, at one meeting, “There was also talk of the beauty of Paris and the danger of its impending destruction.”

The two men wrote biographies in the 1950s, yet, the director pointed out, “As they include personal testimonies where each man seeks to make his role look good, or in the case of the general, to clear his own name, one has to take them with a grain of salt.”

For the film, Schlöndorff has created the device of a hidden tunnel, supposedly built by Napoleon III so he and his mistress could rendezvous in secret, by means of which he has Nordling appear suddenly in the general’s office.

As the diplomatic game proceeds, Nordling tries to appeal to what he hopes are aspects of the general’s better nature. But then it is revealed that the families of Nazi officers are virtual hostages in Germany to ensure that Hitler’s orders are obeyed to the letter.

At one point, Choltitz asks if he should sacrifice his child, whom he loves, to save French children.  The story then has Nordling use trickery to persuade the German to surrender and to spare Paris, which is, historically, exactly what the Nazi commander did. 

“The consul wanted to put an end to the war,” Schlöndorff said. “According to him, anything goes to achieve his aim and, by the way, the diplomats’ methods are hardly less noxious than those of the military authorities, although admittedly they are not as lethal. Therefore my purpose was to pay tribute to the courage, dedication and craft of this successful diplomat, the real hero of the film. He is the embodiment of human values which go beyond state laws.”

“Diplomacy” opens Nov. 7.


Another World War II movie, “The Imitation Game,” is the tale of British cryptologist, college professor and mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who deciphered a seemingly unbreakable German code, aiding his country and the Allied cause immeasurably.

The film is leavened with flashbacks to 1927, when the shy, awkward Turing is an unhappy teenage student at a boys’ boarding school. His life is made miserable by bullying classmates, but is eventually brightened by an appealing, charismatic older boy and their mutual attraction. The older boy introduces Turing to cryptography, a process of writing in code, allowing them to communicate in private and keep their forbidden love a secret, until the boy dies of bovine tuberculosis.

Flash forward to 1939. Turing, still socially inept and isolated, is recruited by the Secret Government Code and Cypher School to join a team housed at Bletchley Park, and is charged with breaking Germany’s Enigma code. After writing to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Turing is appointed to head the team, which comes to include a young woman with whom he forges a close friendship.  Working alone, Turing builds a complex, huge contraption, a kind of primitive computer, but the Germans change the code every day, and so neither he nor the other team members have any success.

Suddenly, an accidental comment by a young woman working as a low-level decoder gives Turing the key to cracking the Enigma, thereby exposing the Nazi war strategies.

It is now 1952, and the police have come to Turing’s house after receiving reports of a possible robbery.  Further investigation reveals the fact that he is gay, a crime at the time in England, and Turing chooses a form of chemical castration over a prison term. Two years later, his faculties impaired by the treatment, he commits suicide.

Teddy Schwarzman, one of the film’s producers, said Turing’s life and accomplishments were the primary factors that motivated him to take on this project. “Turing not only cracked the seemingly impossible German Enigma code, saving millions of lives, but he also created the foundation for the modern computer. I found it fascinating that this man had such an enormous impact on our society, and yet, so few of us knew of him.”

The producer added, “Despite the prominence of computers in our daily lives, how many of us focus on the roots of computer science? Sure, many of us remember the beginning of the personal computer — the Commodore, the Apple II — but not many of us look past those, [and] if they did, they would find Alan Turing.

 Schwarzman said that there was no way to avoid the tragedy in this film.

“Turing’s prosecution, and that of so many other gay men, was terribly unjust, and all the more sad in Turing’s case for his death at age 41. That said, Turing left behind an incredible, powerful and positive legacy, and we are all indebted.

“Hopefully,” he added, “this film reinforces what we all accept today: that it’s OK to be different, to not conform, and to hopefully have enough strength and self-belief to tackle the impossible. You never know, you may just succeed.”

“The Imitation Game” opens Nov. 21.


There is little advance information about our final World War II movie, “Fury,” which stars Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf alongside Brad Pitt as Wardaddy, a battle-seasoned serviceman who leads one final push against the Nazis. The time is April 1945, and the war in Europe is nearing its end. With only a Sherman tank and a crew of five men, including an inexperienced soldier, Wardaddy takes his troops on a mission behind enemy lines that is fraught with danger.  

“Fury” opens Oct. 17.


The case of a journalist who wound up being persecuted for writing an exposé of sordid activities by our government is recreated in “Kill the Messenger,” based on the true story of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). In the 1990s, acting on a tip from the girlfriend of a convicted drug dealer, Webb keeps digging in an investigation that takes him as far away as a prison in Nicaragua. He is bent on uncovering a plot by the CIA during the previous decade, which allowed the importation of drugs for sale in this country in order to raise funds to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The contras were an alliance of factions aiming to overturn Nicaragua’s elected, left-leaning, Sandinista government. Webb writes a series of articles in 1996, titled “Dark Alliance,” detailing the CIA operation, which came about after Congress cut off funding for the rebels.

Jeremy Renner stars as dedicated reporter Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick / Focus Features

At first, the reporter is lauded for his exposé, but, after intense character assassination by the CIA, aspersions cast on his journalistic integrity by competitors and denials by some of his sources, the accuracy of his report is called into question. Webb ultimately becomes a pariah and never works for a newspaper again. In 2004, he is found dead. 

“Kill the Messenger” opens Oct. 10.


Other films of interest:

“The Good Lie”: The civil war in Sudan, which dates back to 1983, resulted in thousands of orphaned youngsters who came to be known as the Lost Boys. Children from various villages join together to reach a refugee camp after their homes are destroyed and their parents killed. Thirteen years later, 3,600 of these orphans, a group that now includes girls, are resettled in America and must learn to adjust to a totally unfamiliar culture in the modern world. Opens Nov. 7.

“Foxcatcher”: Wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold medal winner, is invited by multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to live and train at his estate for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But du Pont is a psychopath who corrupts Schultz and ultimately murders Schultz’s brother. Based on real events. Opens Nov. 14.

“Rosewater”: Satirist and talk show host Jon Stewart makes his debut as a screenwriter-director with the film based on a memoir by BBC journalist Maziar Bahari. Bahari, born in Teheran, was living in London in 2009 when he went back to Iran to interview Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the main challenger facing the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After a protest erupted against Ahmadinejad’s victory announcement, the journalist sent film of the uprising to the BBC. He was then arrested, tortured and questioned for 118 days by a man calling himself, “Rosewater.” Later that year, Bahari’s wife headed a worldwide movement to free her husband, and the story was kept before the public through such venues as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” where the journalist appeared as a guest after being freed from prison on $300,000 bail. Opens Nov. 7. 

Iran, U.S. waiting for other side to make nuclear compromise


The presidency of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani has opened a window of opportunity in Iran's delicate nuclear diplomacy with the West but Tehran-watchers say that window could close as each side waits for the other to make the first move.

Cautious optimism about talks between Iran and six world powers due to restart in September is a stark contrast to the gloom over on-off negotiations under eight years of previous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In that time, ever more stringent U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran's energy, shipping and banking sectors have helped weaken its currency, contributed to a steep rise in inflation and nearly halved oil exports since 2011.

Meanwhile the Islamic Republic has continued to enrich uranium, edging towards Israel's “red line” after which it says it will launch military strikes on Iranian facilities.

The leadership of Rouhani, who defeated more conservative rivals in a June 14 election with just over 50 percent of the vote, appears to offer the prospect of an alternative to the worst case scenario.

“We are prepared, seriously and without wasting time, to enter negotiations which are serious and substantive with the other side,” Rouhani said at his first news conference as president on Tuesday, and in answer to a question did not rule out direct talks with the United States.

The United States, which has said it would be a “willing partner” if Iran were serious about resolving the problem peacefully, was careful in its response.

“There are steps they need to take to meet their international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, and the ball is in their court,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

KHAMENEI'S SUPPORT?

The fact that Rouhani has been able to reach out to Washington even in a limited way indicates he has at least the tacit support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran's complex and often opaque power structure.

Khamenei has publicly voiced scepticism of the West's willingness to compromise, but for now appears to be giving Rouhani room to make a deal. If there is a lack of progress, that could easily change.

Western powers must demonstrate that they are willing to engage or Rouhani's ability to negotiate might be undercut by conservative elements at home, said Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“If faced with inertia or a blind insistence on increasing sanctions, then hardliners will discredit him and Iran will revert back to a policy of resistance,” Esfandiary told Reuters.

Rouhani's key appointment so far has been Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Zarif has been involved in back-channel talks and behind-the-scenes negotiations with the United States dating back to the arms-for-hostages deal of the 1980s, and has had contacts with top U.S. officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

A new head of the Supreme National Security Council, who has traditionally acted as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, has yet to be appointed. The delay has led some Iran-watchers to speculate Rouhani may want to the bring the job of nuclear negotiator under the foreign ministry, giving an even stronger signal that he wants to streamline the talks process.

The basis of a deal is just about visible.

The two governments appear closer to holding direct talks than they have been in many years, perhaps even reviving the idea of a “grand bargain” to resolve all the issues between them dating back to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rouhani has signalled he would be willing to allow more transparency in Tehran's nuclear activities in return for the acceptance of Iran's right to enrich for peaceful purposes.

WHO WILL MAKE THE FIRST MOVE

But both the United States and Iran appear to be waiting for the other side to make the first big concession, which is likely to stall any breakthrough.

Rouhani said on Tuesday Iran retained the “right” to enrich uranium, a position that has scuttled past talks and is likely to be a sticking point again.

World powers have demanded Iran cease the enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent and U.N. Security Council resolutions require Iran to suspend all enrichment.

“It was always going to be unlikely that Iran would happily give up enrichment – the Islamic Republic of Iran has painted itself into a corner by elevating the issue to one of national resistance and pride,” Esfandiary said.

And there are those on both sides arguing for their government to take a tougher stance.

Some in the United States believe it is the strict sanctions that have brought about Iran's new willingness to negotiate and the opportunity should not be lost to press the advantage home.

A large majority of U.S. senators urged President Barack Obama in a letter this week to step up sanctions to strengthen Washington's hand in talks. The House of Representatives also passed a bill aiming to choke off Iranian oil exports altogether last week. The full Senate is expected to debate the bill after the summer recess.

Rouhani blamed what he called a “war-mongering group” in U.S. Congress that he said was doing the bidding of Iran's sworn foe Israel.

“The key issue remains the insistence in both camps that the other side must make the first move,” said Jamie Ingram, Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk.

“There is inherent mistrust between the U.S. and Iran and each are reticent to make any firm commitments on the back of what they fear may just be 'rhetoric',” he told Reuters.

“I think there is some willingness in the Obama administration which sees the potential to make a massive achievement in its final term – conversely, they will be wary of being seen to make a huge mistake.”

Additional reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

OPINION: President Obama’s diplomacy has been given a chance


According to Jewish tradition, prophecy ceased with the end of the Biblical era, but it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that Israel will not be attacking Iranian nuclear installations, at least not for a while.

The conventional wisdom had been that the Israelis had a window of opportunity to attack Iran prior to the American election. Electoral politics would force President Obama to support and Israeli attack, whether he would have wanted to or not and the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party Mitt Romney has already come out in support of such an attack should Israel so decide.

But there will be no such attack, at least not until October and perhaps far beyond.

My reasoning is simple. With an impending election this fall, the Netanyahu government will become a lame duck government and it would be unwise for the Prime Minister to risk his reelection on the unknown outcomes of an attack on Iran.

Were such an attack a failure, it would undermine his reelection campaign. Were such an attack successful but were it to trigger attacks on Israel from the North and the South, Israel might find itself besieged by rocket fire and the Israelis might feel themselves insecure and might hold the Prime Minister responsible for miscalculating the consequences of his government’s actions. Netanyahu well remembers that his first election as Prime Minister was assisted in no small part by terrorist attacks from the North that undermined Israel’s confidence in the Oslo Accords and sunk Shimon Peres’ hopes to election on his own following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Peres’ poll numbers dropped precipitously and the rest was history.

Were Netanyahu to miscalculate, there is enough domestic opposition from security heavyweights such as the former heads of the Mossad. the Shin Bet and the IDF and sufficient caution from the current Chief of Staff of the IDF to place the full burden of responsibility of Netanyahu’s shoulders.  It is highly likely that Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not be a major factor in the next government.

If Israeli elections are held in September, a new government will not be formed and functioning until after the holidays in October, just on the eve of the Presidential elections. The Prime Minister is quite skilled at reading the American political landscape. Were President Obama to win reelection and were he to oppose the bombing in private, a newly reelected President entering his second term and not having to face the voters again, might not quite appreciate the October surprise and his rocky relationship with the Prime Minister might only become more strained.

Were Mitt Romney to be elected, Netanyahu would be sorely tempted to wait the lame duck President out and see if over US support or a US initiated attack might be forthcoming under a new President who administration would not have its people fully in place and functioning until well after a January 20th 2013 inauguration It would take time to coordinate, time for a Secretary of Defense to work with his Generals for a National Security team to be in place and ready to attack. Were a October surprise to have unintended and unanticipated anti-American consequences, a newly sworn in President Romney would also not appreciate the circumstances in which he found himself.

So we are left to ask several questions:

I understand that all politics are local, but if Iran is truly an existential threat to Israel, then why are Israeli politicians not behaving as if it were such a threat?

Why do coalition politics and the opportunity or a significant electoral triumph trump a problem of such national urgency?

A skeptic might argue that the threat has been exaggerated. I frankly do not know enough to render a judgment, but wonder if the treat is as real why can’t unity be achieved within the government itself?

With this new time framework, we shall see if international sanctions, sabotage and targeted assassinations coupled with diplomacy will actually halt Iran’s march to develop nuclear weapons. Ten months if a far longer window of opportunity than 10 to 20 weeks? That is a significant challenge to American policy but an even more serious opportunity.

If the Netanyahu-Barak strategy to bringing Iran front and center and the purpose of raising the prospect of an imminent attack has been to focus the world’s attention of the problem of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, it has been brilliant. If it is but a prelude to an actual attack then too much has been said to too many people and they would have been wiser to follow the advice of our sages: say little and do much – as Menachem Begin did in 1981 and Ehud Omert did in 2007 when they destroyed the nuclear capacities of Iraq and Syria—or follow what Vice President Joseph Biden said recently describing President Obama and quoting Teddy Roosevelt “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Obama: Diplomacy window shrinking


The window for Iran to resolve its differences with the West through diplomacy is shrinking, President Obama said.

“They should understand that because the international community has applied so many sanctions, because we have employed so many of the options that are available to us to persuade Iran to take a different course, that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking,” Obama said in a news conference Wednesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he was meeting in Washington.

Obama’s remarks come a week after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expressed his skepticism about the efficacy of sanctions and diplomacy.

Before meeting with Netanyahu, Obama in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee made his most explicit commitment as president to using military action to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Obama and Cameron stressed that Iran still had time to make more transparent its suspected nuclear program, but that Iran could not use negotiations to delay sanctions.

“Tehran must understand that it cannot escape or evade the choice before it—meet your international obligations or face the consequences,” Obama said.

Iran’s supreme leader praises Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy


Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, welcomed President Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy to resolve tensions over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Iranian state TV reported Thursday that Khamenei had embraced Obama’s position that there was a “window of opportunity” to address the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy.

“This expression is a good word. This is a wise remark indicating taking distance from illusion,” Khamenei told a group of clerics, according to the Associated Press.

But Khamenei also accused the U.S. of forcing Iran to “bow through imposing sanctions,” which he said was an unrealistic approach.

“It will lead their calculations to failure,” he said.

In a Wednesday interview with Fox News, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that war with Iran is not inevitable. He argued that a credible military threat was the best way of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear push.

“So the paradox is that if they actually believe that they are going to face the military option,” the prime minister added, “then you probably will not need the military option.”

Khamenei has previously referred to Israel as a cancer that should be excised from the region.

“The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off,” he said in a February speech. “And it definitely will be cut off.”

New book: Iran sanctions only If coupled with diplomacy


News on the Iran front is getting more and more complicated. I am not referring to the situation at Iran’s nuclear facilities but to the one here in Washington, where Congress, deep into election-year fundraising and thinking about the March AIPAC policy conference, is crafting yet another sanctions bill. There is no reason to go into the details. But suffice it to say, this new set of sanctions, like the rest, will primarily hurt ordinary Iranians, not the government. As one Iranian citizen, writing under a pseudonym, described the situation this week in the New York Daily News:

These days, ordinary Iranians like my mother are becoming increasingly aware of a new economic reality in their lives. Sanctions already in place have plunged the country’s economy into a crisis; more robust sanctions that will be enacted come spring on our financial system and oil trade will cause even more pain for an already-suffering populace.

Isn’t life in Iran difficult enough under the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Why punish ordinary people more?

Did we punish the Poles or the Bulgarians for living under communism? Did we punish the people of the Soviet Union because their government had a nuclear arsenal primed to destroy us? No. In fact, we gave the people of those countries food. As President Richard Nixon (like President Ronald Reagan later) liked to remind us, our adversary was the leadership of the Soviet Union, not the average citizens in the different Soviet republics.

But that is not how we have been approaching the Iran. Not by a long shot.

In A Single Roll of the Dice, a comprehensive new book about U.S.-Iran relations since President Obama came to office, Iran expert Trita Parsi examines the effect that the purely punitive approach (i.e., sanctions) can have on changing the Iranian government’s behavior.

Specifically, Parsi points out that “sanctions have become an alternative to policy” rather than an instrument of policy. He explains that “if diplomacy is pursued again” it must be “for the sake of resolving the conflict, not for the sake of creating an impetus for more sanctions.”

Abandoning a sole reliance on sanctions is Parsi’s first of six recommendations for establishing a diplomacy track with Iran that will succeed.

The second is “do not put unnecessary limitations on U.S. diplomats.” Diplomats should not be limited to one official channel but should engage in dialogue with the multiple power centers that exist throughout the country.

If direct engagement with these political centers and factions is not immediately possible, negotiators must be willing to give them time so as to neutralize these stakeholders’ inclinations to scuttle a deal of which they were not a part. Pressuring Iran’s fractured political system to give a quick “yes” usually results instead in “no.”

Unfortunately, Parsi’s advice on this score has already been contradicted in the recently passed AIPAC-drafted sanctions law, which not only circumscribes a diplomat’s ability to talk to Iranians but forbids any diplomacy without advance approval by congressional committees. (This patently unconstitutional provision is unlikely to withstand court challenge, although AIPAC certainly won’t bless such a challenge.)

Third, he says, the U.S. and its allies should accept that Iran will not abandon all enrichment of uranium, especially at levels that are necessary for medical reasons (radioactive isotopes) but are too low for use for weapons. Iran is already enriching uranium, so that train has already left the station. In fact, the United States has already accepted Iranian enrichment, but is under pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to hold the line against any enrichment. Parsi writes:

At this stage the only feasible negotiations are those regarding how enrichment in Iran can be inspected, verified, limited and controlled.

Fourth, diplomacy cannot be limited solely to the nuclear issue but should also include the human rights situation:

A healthy, sustainable relationship with Iran cannot be built if the current reservoir of American soft power among the Iranian population is squandered for the sake of a nuclear deal. Just as Iranians’ respect and admiration for American achievements, values and culture would be jeopardized in the event of a military attack on Iran, silence on human rights will also likewise deplete this crucial strategic asset.

Fifth, take advantage of our NATO ally Turkey’s relationship with Iran:

While Washington has been uncomfortable with Turkey’s perceived leniency toward Iran, it has overlooked how Turkey’s maneuvering has checked Iran’s attempts to fill the vacuum caused by America’s decline in the region. … Instead of treating Turkey’s approach with suspicion, Washington and the EU should utilize Turkey’s ability to elicit Iranian cooperation.

Finally, “Washington must play the long game, with a focus on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran and the dangers of noncommunication.”

This is not a radical idea as is evidenced by the message delivered by Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said last year, “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it is virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be a miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

All the recommendations on Parsi’s list can be summed up in one word: Talk.

I’ll add my own recommendation to the list: Do not back down when AIPAC barks or directs its congressional cutouts to scream bloody murder every time it suspects that the U.S. is considering diplomacy with Iran.

I remember from my days at AIPAC that the thing it was most afraid of was that a president would break with the policy it dictated and explain to the American people why. As the former (and most effective) executive director of AIPAC, Thomas Dine, often said to me, “If the president takes to the airwaves and explains why his position is in the U.S. interest and the position we are pushing isn’t, it will be us who folds, not him.”

I have only highlighted one section of Parsi’s book, but the rest is just as smart and incisive. To date, it is the best book there is on U.S.-Iranian relations in 2012. Warhawks in Iran and Israel and neocons in Washington won’t like this book (they will find Parsi’s propensity for dividing blame among Iran, the United States and Israel maddening) but, for the rest of us, it provides just what we need — a well-written history of how we got to the brink of war with Iran and how we can still avoid it. I hope President Obama reads it; I have no doubt that he agrees with Parsi that diplomacy, not more pain and killing, is the answer to the looming threat of war.

Obama: ‘All options’ – including diplomacy – still on with Iran


All options are on the table for Iran, but a diplomatic solution to the impasse over its nuclear weapons program is still a possibility, President Obama said in his State of the Union speech.

Obama said Iran was more isolated than ever because of the intensified sanctions he has introduced or encouraged.

“Let there be no doubt:  America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” he said.  “But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

Obama also referred to the defense alliance with Israel, but did not mention—as he has in past speeches—his efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Our iron-clad, and I mean iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history,” he said to a standing ovation.

Speaking of the “Arab Spring” wave of protests across the region, Obama said the outcome was still uncertain, and alluded to concerns about Islamist victories in elections in Egypt and Tunisia.

“While it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well,” he said.  “We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings – men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.”  He predicted the demise of the Assad regime in Syria.

Much of Obama’s speech was focused on proposals to spur job creation.

The State of the Union marked one of the last appearances in Congress of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is still recovering from a shooting attack a year ago and who is resigning from Congress as of tomorrow to focus on her recovery.

Giffords was cheered walking into the chamber, accompanied by her close friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Obama sought Giffords out for a hug before he began his speech.

Diplomats seek cease-fire as Gaza fighting rages [VIDEO]


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Analysis: Gaza crisis is opportunity for Obama


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Does the mini-war underway between Israel and Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip present President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with a crisis or an opportunity?

Israel’s aerial bombardment, the most intensive in the Gaza Strip in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has killed at least 320 people, most of them militants belonging to the terrorist group Hamas, although tens of children were reported dead in surprise attacks on the crowded strip.

The assault, which started Saturday, came after days of intensified rocket attacks launched from Gaza on Israel’s southern towns and farms. The Palestinian rocket fire, launched even before a Hamas-Israel ceasefire formally lapsed Dec. 19, has killed at least four Israelis and is emptying the south of its residents. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, warned of “all-out war,” possibly including a land invasion

Buried beneath the fretting over whether the renewed conflict would kill talks between Israel and the relatively moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority were hints that it could in fact bolster the negotiations, if only by marginalizing Hamas. That, in turn, could help Obama clear the ground for a breakthrough, a prospect Obama’s team seemed to recognize by limiting its reactions to expressions of support for Israel.

“He’s going to work closely with the Israelis,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday when asked about the outbreak. “They’re a great ally of ours, the most important ally in the region. And that is a fundamental principle from which he’ll work.”

Washington pundits and officials in European capitals are casting the flare up as a crisis that could scuttle Obama’s stated intention of developing talks — first launched a year ago by the Bush administration — into a final status agreement.

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, said the war was the final failure for Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who is to leave office by March to face corruption charges. “His failure represents another missed opportunity for Middle East peace — and probably means that the incoming Obama administration, like the incoming Bush administration of 2001, will inherit both a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a new Israeli government indisposed to compromise,” Diehl wrote in Monday’s Post.

Meanwhile, Israel is casting the war first of all as one of necessity: The bombardment of Israel’s south, in the days before Israel launched its aerial counter attacks, at times reached 70 rockets a day. The effect has been to devastate the region’s economy and to create levels of anxiety that Israelis regard as intolerable; the retaliatory strikes earned the support of the vast majority of Israelis in weekend polling.

Sallai Meridor, the Israeli envoy to Washingtons, cautioned that the action was not undertaken with the peace process in mind. “The direct reason for these activities is to remove a threat over the head of 500,000 Israelis — not a theoretical threat, a real one,” Meridor told JTA. “Three were killed only today. No country would sacrifice its citizens to terror.”

Meridor added, however, that an Israeli success could have salutary effects on the peace process. “Indirectly, the chances for peace are dependent on the weakening of the enemies of peace. If Hamas strengthens, the chances of peace weaken; if Hamas weakens, it contributes to the chances of peace.”

In remarks Sunday to his Cabinet, Olmert said the aim was to “restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south who — for many years — have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives and prevent them from enjoying a normal, relaxed and quiet life, as the citizen of any country is entitled to.”

Another factor might be political calculation. Little love is lost between Olmert and his government partners: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has assumed control of his Kadima Party, and Barak, who heads the Labor Party. Yet Olmert, Livni and Barak are united in hopes of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud Party who has vowed to bring talks with the Palestinian to a halt, from coming to power; the first post-assault polls show their chances of doing that substantially improving.

The effect Israel’s current leadership sought was not simply to remind the public that doves are capable of defending Israel, but that the onslaught would help reinforce the current round of talks. The aim, Director of the Shin Bet security service Yuval Diskin suggested at the weekly Cabinet meeting, is to isolate Hamas. “The mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza,” Diskin said in remarks relayed by Oved Yehezkel, the Cabinet secretary.

That approach was echoed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in remarks Monday on P.A. television.

“I say in all honesty, we made contact with leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said in a translation made available by Palestinian Media Watch. “We spoke with them in all honesty and directly, and after that we spoke with them indirectly, through more than one Arab and non-Arab side … We spoke with them on the telephone and we said to them: We ask of you, don’t stop the ceasefire, the ceasefire must continue and not stop, in order to avoid what has happened, and if only we had avoided it.”

Ziad Asali, an Abbas ally who founded the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was notable that Abbas and other Arab leaders were muted in their calls on Israel to draw back.

“There is a certain withholding of outright support” for Hamas “that usually would accrue to any party in active conflict with Israel,” he said.

Arab frustration with Hamas stemmed from its refusal until now to defer to Abbas as the lead negotiator in peace talks and its insistence on armed conflict as the only way to confront Israel, Asali said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “At the end of the day there has to be a negotiating process, and the people who are clearly authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians are the P.A. folks.”

He warned, however, that there was a limited window to exploit Hamas’ marginalization, and joined a number of dovish pro-Israel groups — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum — in calling for an immediate cease-fire.

“We don’t know how the parties on the ground will react,” Asali said. “We see ever increasing human suffering in Gaza that would add to the pressure to bring about some kind of ceasefire.”

Should the bloodshed intensify, the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians, joined with public outrage on the “Arab street” with Israel’s actions and the chaotic nature of the conflict, could turn an opportunity into a crisis — and an Obama administration faced with a crisis on Jan. 21 might not be equipped to respond.

“The issue is how urgently they would prioritize this conflict,” Asali said.

Hamas’ responsibility for re-launching hostilities, coupled with a desire to corner the terrorist group into deferring to Abbas’ negotiations with Israel, was likely behind the near unanimous backing in Washington for Israel’s actions.

Most significant was the Obama transition team’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s right to respond, albeit expressed with the requisite deference to George W. Bush as the sitting president.

“The president-elect recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” Axelord, Obama’s adviser, said on CBS. “It’s an important bond, an important relationship. He’s going to honor it. And he wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve. And obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks as Hamas began its shelling and Israel responded.”

Pressed, Axelrod suggested Obama’s strategy would be shaped by his own visit over the summer to Israel’s frontlines.

“He said then that when the bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that,” Axelrod said. “You know, that’s what he said then, and I think that’s what he believes.”

The Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties also issued statements squarely blaming Hamas, followed up with pleas to Israel to curb civilian casualties.

“Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel. “

The White House sounded a similar note: “Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”

Why Obama is better than McCain for Israel


I wouldn’t gamble with Israel’s future. Why would you?

Most arguments in favor of Sen. John McCain and his approach to Israel rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, put simply, McCain is a gambler — in practice, in personality and in judgment.

No supporter of Israel should want Israel’s future placed in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler, whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated. And why would a supporter of Israel want to place the Jewish state’s future in the hands of an inexperienced, ideological, unpredictable, unknowledgeable and barely known President Sarah Palin in the event of a tragedy that would elevate her to the presidency?

With a reputation for fiery verbal outbursts against associates at home and abroad, McCain’s fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin in the first place, rushing back to Washington to “help” in the bailout and flip-flopping on regulation, Bush and his tax policy.

While both candidates have strong records backing Israel, there are differences. McCain benefits from having been in public life longer than Sen. Barack Obama, but his global policies are more likely to harm the Jewish state. He stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than President Bush’s, seemingly closer to Palin’s.

When McCain doesn’t approve of another country’s policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He follows in the Bush tradition of unilateralism and an America going its own way.

He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush — talk loudly but without a clear policy, only drifting. Regarding Russia, McCain has been clear in his determined opposition to the Putin regime, but Israeli leaders are asking for U.S. consultations with Moscow over Iran. How can McCain’s Cold War-style Moscow policy possibly produce that kind of dialogue?

Take a look at Israel’s security today and compare it to eight years ago. Is Israel better off now than when Bush assumed office in 2001?

Eight years ago, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria were all weaker, and the Palestinians were less divided, more stable and more capable of dialogue with Israel. As well, Jordan, critical to Israel’s security, is now threatened from within and without.

Although Bush has been seemingly friendly in his attitude toward Israel, his policies, or lack thereof, have consistently eroded Israel’s defensive strength. If McCain continues to pursue these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will only deteriorate further.

In the Middle East — on Iraq, on Iran and on Arab-Israeli relations — McCain offers more of the same policy that has led to Bush’s repeated failures in the region. Indeed, in recent months even Bush has come close to accepting Obama’s policies on an Iraq timetable, on promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on Pakistan and Afghanistan and even on the idea of possibly talking to Iran. Lately, it seems McCain is often more Bush than Bush.

Israel’s security would be enhanced with a fresh post-Sept. 11 approach by a new leader with a better pro-Israel perspective. It is not words but actions that will make the difference for Israel.

The policy framework Obama offers has a much better likelihood of producing positive results than McCain’s. For example, on Iran, Obama would talk to lower-level officials and increase dialogue as Iran demonstrates its seriousness to make concessions. On the contrary, McCain is opposed to dealing directly with leaders in Tehran until they stop enriching uranium — the classic, unproductive Bush policy.

Both campaigns, particularly Obama’s, have been vociferous in advocating intensified sanctions against Iran and maintaining the military option on the table.

Obama envisions a regional policy that takes into account America’s competing challenges, first and foremost with the complexities of the Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan quadrangle, yet also addresses simultaneously Israel and its neighbors, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Hezbollah. (It is worth noting that Obama has consistently said he will explore talking to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria but not to nongovernmental threats like Hamas and Hezbollah). Of course in the tough Mideast, Obama’s policy may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain’s will definitely fail.

America’s financial crisis also strengthens the argument for Obama. As the stark events of late September have made only too clear, it is the Democrat, with a fresh, experienced and savvy team, who is far more likely to reverse the U.S. economic meltdown.

For an Israel integrally tied to America and its fortunes, a continued U.S. economic decline will only affect its military security and economic standing adversely and dangerously. The candidate who can better fix the economy must be seen as a stronger advocate of Israel than his opponent, no matter how long the latter has made friendly statements toward the Jewish state.

McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But one wonders why any American should want to live with these kinds of outcomes, but more importantly, why should any supporter of an embattled Israel want to risk the future of the Jewish State on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic and unpredictable whims that guide his decision making?

The Jewish state would be far better off for the next four years with the cool, careful, considered decisions of a strong supporter — Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and a professor of political science at UCLA.

Why I support Barack Obama


It is highly unusual for me to be speaking out politically.

I have worked for Republican and Democratic presidents alike. I was a political appointee during the Reagan administration, serving on the National Security Council staff in the White House. I held a senior position in the

State Department during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. And, I was Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace negotiator — also a senior appointee position.

I have been largely nonpartisan, living the ideal that politics stopped at the water’s edge, and foreign policy should somehow be above politics. So why am I now speaking out and calling on others to support Sen. Barack Obama?

Put simply, because the stakes are so high. For one thing, the financial meltdown has huge implications for our place in the world. We cannot be strong internationally if we are weak at home, with an economy in crisis. Our next president must understand the global economy and financial markets — and be able to inspire confidence at home and abroad. But he must do so at a time when our standing in the world has, at least in my memory, never been lower.

While we must never rely on anyone else to do for us what we must do for ourselves in national security, there are multiple threats today that we cannot resolve without the cooperation of others. In fact, when it comes to preventing the worst weapons from falling into the worst hands or defeating apocalyptic terror groups or coping with global health challenges or stopping global warming or avoiding an international depression, we cannot do everything on our own. We need others internationally to accept our objectives and be prepared to join their means to ours.

When I was with Obama in Berlin and more than 200,000 people turned out in the heart of Europe to wave American flags, this was an extraordinary development. It reminded us that an American leader who is admired can lead not only our country but also make it easier for others to follow our lead. And, when I look at the Middle East — where we face our greatest threats today — we need others to follow our lead in stopping Iran from going nuclear and discrediting radical Islamists.

Today, we are in trouble in the Middle East. Everywhere we look — whether in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza and the West Bank — we see Iran challenging American interests and allies. Iran uses coercion and intimidation — using groups like Hezbollah and Hamas — to weaken existing regimes and to employ terror. It is Iran that arms these groups and threatens Israel on a daily basis.

Consider what has happened to Israel’s strategic position during the course of the Bush administration. In 2001, Iran was not a nuclear power, but it is today. It could not enrich uranium then but it does so now and has already stockpiled several-hundred kilos of low-enriched uranium — about half of what it would need for its first nuclear bomb. The Bush policy on Iran has failed, and unless the next president can change Iranian behavior, Israel will face an existential threat. It already faces a dramatically different threat from what it faced seven years ago from both Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hezbollah now has a veto power over any decision the Lebanese government can make and possesses 40,000 rockets — and those rockets are not only three times as many as it had only two years ago but are more accurate and have longer range than the ones that hit Israel in the summer of 2006. Hamas has taken over Gaza, creating a miniterror state there and today has over 2,000 rockets.

Israel cannot afford four more years of seeing the threats grow against it. It cannot afford four more years of U.S. policies that are tough rhetorically but soft practically. It cannot afford four more years of America being on the sidelines diplomatically.

When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Sheikh Hamid of Qatar were all visiting Damascus, and Israelis asked me who was there watching out for Israel’s interests? Similarly, who was there to watch out for Israel’s interests when Qatar brokered the understanding that gave Hezbollah a veto over any Lebanese decision after the fighting in May? Israel can surely watch out for its own interests in the indirect negotiations that Turkey is mediating between Israel and Syria, but will Turkey be as concerned for Israel’s interests as America would be?

It should come as no surprise that when America sits on the sidelines in the Middle East, it creates a diplomatic vacuum, and others invariably fill it. Since the Bush administration would not engage Iran, the Europeans have taken the lead on the diplomacy. While their efforts have been serious and genuine, it is clear that they have not generated the pressure that America in the lead might have produced — and absent that pressure and absent the Iranians being forced to make a choice, Iran will not change its behavior.

I was with Obama in Israel and in Europe, and I saw how he focused on the urgency of the Iranian threat. I saw how he used his discussions in Israel to remind the European leaders that Israelis are justified in seeing Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat — and that for Israel’s sake and our own we must put far more pressure on Iran if we are to stop it from going nuclear.

Obama understands that weak sticks and weak carrots — the current policy — can’t work. We need strong sticks to concentrate the Iranian mind on what they stand to lose, and we need strong carrots, conveyed directly, to show the Iranians they have something to gain by giving up their nuclear weapon pursuit. And, if in the end diplomacy fails, the fact that we engaged directly and Iran was unwilling to alter its behavior creates a very different context for tougher options.

Engaging without illusions might be one way to describe how diplomacy would be conducted in an Obama administration. Just like with Iran, he would engage on Arab-Israeli peace. Not because he knows it will produce peace, but because he again understands the consequences of disengagement. Who gained when the Bush administration walked away from peace making for more than six years and then in its last years pursued it incompetently? Hamas, because like all radical Islamists, they gain when there is hopelessness and frustration. Who lost? Those in the Arab and Palestinian world who favor a two-state solution but need the possibility of peace to make their case and to have the political space to build their authority.

It is my Middle Eastern hat and my attachment to Israel that ultimately inspires my support for Obama. I saw first hand his appreciation for Israel’s predicament, its needs and his instinctive and emotional commitment to the relationship. But more than this, I know he understands that neither Israel nor America can afford four more years of Iran and the radical Islamists gaining strategic leverage in the Middle East. Slogans won’t prevent that. A fixation on Iraq won’t prevent that. But a leader who understands how to use all the elements of American power, revitalize that power and influence and get others to follow us in order to ensure we win the battle for hearts and minds will be able to do so.

In this election, it is clear to me that Obama is that leader.

Dennis Ross served as President Bill Clinton’s Middle East negotiator and President George H.W. Bush’s head of policy planning in the State Department. He gives advice to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and recently accompanied Sen. Obama on his trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Ich bin ein Amerikaner


“The world is waiting to love America again” ran the title of a recent London Observer editorial anticipating Barack Obama’s visit to Europe.

Love may be too strong a word to describe the world’s feelings for America when George W. Bush was first sworn in as president, but not by much. It’s surprising, but irrefutable, to look back at the numbers he inherited. Polls taken in 1999 and 2000 show impressive majorities of people in nations all around the world holding favorable views of the U.S. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, when headlines declared “We Are All Americans” in many languages, those numbers went even higher.

But today, love is not much in the air. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project put it, “Since 2002 … the image of the United States has declined in most parts of the world. Favorable ratings of America are lower in 26 of 33 countries for which trends are available.”

Some examples: In Germany, our favorability has fallen from 78 percent, when Bush was inaugurated, to 30 percent in 2007; in Britain, from 83 to 51; in Slovakia, from 74 to 41; in Argentina, from 50 to 16; in Turkey, from 52 to 9; in Indonesia, from 75 to 29.

The Bush/Cheney doctrine, of course, was never about being loved. Instead, they said they wanted America to be respected, which turned out to be code for being feared. No one disputes that national security depends on strength, which includes military and economic strength. But it also depends on ideals, and it’s in that department — the values implicit in our actions — where the White House has lost the world’s respect and actually undermined America’s power.

Everyone knows the list of horribles: Unilateralism. Name-calling. Cowboy diplomacy. Pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. Declaring the Geneva Conventions irrelevant. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Branding negotiation as “appeasement.” Preaching a “freedom agenda” while undermining domestic civil liberties. Supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of spreading democracy.

It goes on. And it has had an effect diametrically opposite to its intention. “Ironically,” the Pew project says, “the belief that the United States does not take into account the interests of other countries in formulating its foreign policy is extensive among the publics of several close U.S. allies. No fewer than 89 percent of the French, 83 percent of Canadians and 74 percent of the British express this opinion.”

For years, the Bush State Department has pursued numerous misbegotten and unsuccessful efforts at “public diplomacy,” based on the premise that what America has is a communications problem, that we need a more effective marketing campaign for our national brand. In fact, what we have actually had is a problem problem — a policy problem, an actions problem, a contempt for differing points of view, an arrogance about human rights, a penchant for demonization.

Yes, there are evil people and bad states in the world, and they want to do grievous harm to us and our allies. But there is scant evidence that the approach of the past seven years has effectively contained or defanged them. In fact, the Bush State Department seems finally to have recognized this. In its dealings with Syria and Iran, there is a belated, twilight recognition that talk is not the same thing as capitulation. The agreement at the G-8 summit in Japan to halve greenhouse gases by 2050 — 2050! — may be pathetic, but at least it is less pathetic than denying their human causes and their lethal consequences.

There is a good reason that entertainment is America’s No. 1 export, even at this nadir of our international reputation. The stories that Hollywood’s products tell, the values they embody, are hopeful, idealistic, celebratory of human potential and achievement. Yes, some nihilistic stuff is American-made and globally consumed, too. But by and large, people around the world like our entertainment for the same reason that we do: It comes down on the side of dignity, freedom and good triumphing over evil. That’s what America can mean to the world, and in some quarters — despite the bullying and blundering of the Bush years — still does mean.

When John F. Kennedy in 1963 told the world from the Brandenburg Gate, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he was explicitly identifying with all people whose freedom was threatened. But there was an implicit message in his words as well: Here is what it means to be an American. Here is what the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution look like.

As The Observer observed, the world is waiting to love America again. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have a tremendous opportunity to change the face, and to change the meaning, of what “I am an American” has come to signify around the world. For the sake of our national security, and that of our allies, it can’t come a moment too soon.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Shut up and read this book review


“Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomatic Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government” by Gregory Levey (Simon & Schuster/Free Press, $24).

Consider the Zionist dream of Jews living as “normal” people in a “normal” country. Then consider Gregory Levey’s hilarious and unexpectedly touching memoir, “Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomatic Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government.” You’ll soon wonder, “What were Herzl and Ben-Gurion smoking?”

“Shut Up” is a sitcom involving weapons of mass destruction. It’s a historic tragedy featuring acne and sheep. It has car-chase scenes better than “The Fast and the Furious.” Yes, it’s Israeli diplomacy dissected — funny bone by funny bone — all by a nice Jewish boy from Toronto.

Levey’s is a classic tale of a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land, a North American Diaspora “Can I do your taxes?” kind of Jew forced to fend for himself among the Israeli “Hold my Uzi while I take a leak” kind of Jews.

If you still cleave to your memories of the Israel of “Exodus,” the Six-Day War and the Raid on Entebbe, “Shut Up” will shatter those illusions. But Levey strikes with a Nerf hammer. He is no ideologue. He is barely even political. Rather, he is a Jewish Chauncey Gardiner, but a lot funnier and smarter.

Being there, in New York, a 25-year-old Canadian Jewish day school graduate in his second year of law school, Levey applied for a posted internship at the Israeli consulate in New York. He is then offered (because they don’t offer internships) a job as a speechwriter — first at the U.N. Mission and later in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Levey’s internship application is motivated less by Zionist zeal, however, than a burning desire to escape the tedium of studying corporate tax law and the like.

Levey’s adventures in speechwriting over the next two and a half years take him from signing-up for a U.N. salsa dancing club, to responding to such weighty accusations that the “occupation” is causing higher levels of acne among Palestinian teenagers, to writing speeches for Prime Minister Sharon in defense of his Disengagement plan for Gaza and more. The intifada boils on, Arafat dies, the barrier and withdrawal from Gaza controversies rage, Hamas comes to power and Sharon goes into a coma. In other words, a typical few years in the life of Israel before its 60th birthday parties begin.

Through Levey’s wide eyes, Israel is a great many things, some wonderful, but “normal” is not one of them. There’s a taxi driver who kicks him out of the taxi because he doesn’t understand a joke; the petty bureaucrat who spits sunflower seed shells on him; the foreign minister who greets him in only underwear; and the spokesman for the prime minister, who gives an interview to CNN while speeding through traffic — via the sidewalks when “necessary” — with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” playing in the background, slowing only to yell at pedestrians who cross his path.

And people wonder why Israel does not have a better image in the world?

Levey’s experiences are so amusing, the uninitiated might think he made them up. As anyone who has spent considerable time in Israel knows, though, he didn’t need to. Levey’s cast of characters merely exemplifies the saying, “Jews are just like other people — only more so.” And that goes doubly for Israelis. Normal people in a normal country? Feh. Never.

Levey’s parents emigrated from South Africa and cast their lot with Canadians — “polite people who had opinions about nothing,” rather than Israelis — “ill-mannered people who had opinions about everything.”

This culture clash fuels the book’s hilarity, although I doubt most Israelis would see the humor: “So you’re 25, not an Israeli citizen and have to cast Israel’s vote on weapons of mass destruction at the U.N. What’s the big deal? Improvise,” they’d say.

In a strange and serious way, “Shut Up, I’m Talking” is of a piece with the movie “Munich.” It is a critique that Israel is no place for a nice Jewish boy. Perhaps different standards apply to Israelis and Diaspora Jews, or perhaps it is the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction about real events. Unlike “Munich,” though, it’s hard to be offended by Levey. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner imposed their Westside/ Eastside Diaspora disillusionment onto a Mossad agent risking his life in an important mission for the state. Levey, by contrast, never intended to represent Israel. He is adrift, an everyman treading water, trying only to find meaning and humor in his surreal surroundings. When his Zionist experiment ends, Levey leaves Israel and reflects that he felt he “had finally come home” upon landing in New York. And he’s from Canada. Although sad, somehow, there is a sweetness about it.

Of course, the laughs won’t stop farbissiners from kvetching that “Shut Up” is a shande fur de goyim, an insulting betrayal of Israel. In talking with him, Levey said he wishes perhaps that he featured more instances of the good of Israel, the random acts of kindness, the compassionate one-family feel of the place. Understandably, he did not think it served his narrative; after all, it’s not news when a plane lands safely. Levey also reports that he has received dozens of sympathetic e-mails from Anglo American immigrants in Israel. If the book does not offend that group of people, whom should it offend?

Like every great Jewish joke, “Shut Up” not only makes us laugh at ourselves, but tells us some deeper truth. Taken seriously, “Shut Up” could be a one-man independent government inquiry to fix what’s wrong with Israel’s Foreign Ministry. It could clear the noxious atmosphere at the United Nations. It could inspire Israelis to be more considerate of one another. It might even make Israel an attractive place for nice Jewish boys from North America.

It is a dream Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion would enjoy.

Jon E. Drucker is a nice Jewish boy who practices law in Los Angeles.

Top Ten Signs we’re making progress towards peace


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Monday for the first time since Feb. 19 at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who dropped by briefly a week earlier to declare the peace process was “moving in the right direction.”

President Bush is still saying he expects a peace agreement before he leaves office in nine months, and Olmert and Abbas are making similar claims while accusing each other of foot-dragging.

Since none of them is offering any evidence to back up their optimism, here is my Top 10 list of signs of progress to look for in your cup of Mideast tea leaves to help you judge whether this peace process is serious:

Israel is still fighting for independence


On May 14, Israel will celebrate 60 years of independence. It’s never been an easy independence. Israel is surrounded by regional instability and Israelis have needed to regularly fight their neighbors to maintain their independence — if not their very existence.

Despite those challenges, Israel has managed to retain a vibrant democracy for six decades.

That dichotomous existence was clear on my latest trip to Israel last month, when I toured Sderot on the Gaza border and met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other Israeli officials to discuss ongoing U.S.-Israeli relations and Israel’s security.

If there were an easy fix to Israel’s security situation, it would already have come about. But the situation is even more complicated now because of the split in the Palestinian government. If Israel should reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, it would still have to fend off the terrorist-controlled government of Gaza. Hamas must be dealt with before any agreement with the Palestinian Authority would have teeth.

Responding to Hamas’ rocket attacks on Sderot, other border towns, and increasingly into deeper Israeli territory is difficult, at best, for Israel. Hamas uses mosques, schools, hospitals and other civilian facilities as cover for rocket launch sites. Should Israel respond by attacking those sites, there would undoubtedly be civilian casualties. The international outcry — particularly if the casualties included women and children — would be against Israel, not against the terrorists firing rockets at homes and schools in Israel.

There are calls in some sectors of the international community for the United States to enter into discussions with Hamas and, indeed, some recent news reports suggest some third-party talks may be in the works, possibly involving Egypt.

While I won’t dismiss out of hand sending U.S. demands through a friendly country, experience dictates that negotiating with terrorists is counterproductive.

With that in mind, Egypt could help the peace process by closing down the smuggling corridor between Gaza and Egypt. Tunnels built by Hamas and other criminal elements are used to smuggle supplies and arms from inside Egypt. While it may not be feasible to find and bury all the tunnels, Egypt could set up inspection stations on the surface roads leading to Gaza, which would severely curtail, if not shut down, the smuggling operation.

The United States is committed to Israel’s security and survival. In the past couple of weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney have traveled to the region in an attempt to reinvigorate the peace process. The House of Representatives reconfirmed that commitment earlier this month when I and 403 of my colleagues voted to condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Likewise, we are committed to the two-state solution as outlined at the Annapolis conference that was hosted by President Bush last November.

But those can only be achieved when terrorism is defeated.

Sixty years is long enough for a nation to fight to retain its independence. Our Arab partners, including Egypt and Jordon, need to join with the United States to pressure Hamas and other terrorist groups to cease and desist.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Thousand Oaks) is a member of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.


Rice presses, Israel eases up on Palestinians


For the first time since the Annapolis peace parley last November, the United States is leaning heavily on Israel to move ahead in peacemaking with the Palestinians.

This week, on her second visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas in a month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured a long list of Israeli commitments designed to improve Palestinian living conditions and indicated that the United States would make sure Israel carried them out.

The Americans seem intent on achieving tangible progress on the ground before President Bush’s second visit to Israel this year, scheduled for May to coincide with Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

To preempt further U.S. pressure, the Israelis were keen to show progress is being made in negotiations with the Palestinians on the core issues of borders, Jerusalem, security and Palestinian refugees.

Israel wants to show it is doing all it can to reach a peace deal by the end of 2008 — the target date set at Annapolis.

A day before Rice’s arrival, strategic government leaks to the Israeli media disclosed that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia have held more than 50 unpublicized working meetings since Annapolis. All the core issues, including Jerusalem, have been on the table.

During her visit, Rice focused on conditions on the ground.

“I really do think that what we have to do is to have meaningful progress towards a better life for the Palestinian people,” Rice declared upon her arrival in Jerusalem.

After a three-way meeting with Rice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israel announced a package of measures to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, improve the quality of Palestinian life, boost the Palestinian economy and help Palestinian security forces keep law and order.

The measures included:

  • Dismantling 50 roadblocks around the West Bank cities of Jenin, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Ramallah;
  • Streamlining operations at the remaining 500 or so Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank;
  • Dismantling a permanent checkpoint near Jericho, giving Palestinians direct access to the Dead Sea;
  • Allowing the construction of 5,000 to 8,000 new Palestinian homes in some 25 villages in the Ramallah area, a project that has been on hold for more than a year;
  • Connecting Palestinian villages without electricity to the Israeli power grid;
  • Allowing another 5,000 Palestinian workers to work in Israel, bringing the total number permitted to do so to 23,500;
  • Issuing permits to another 500 Palestinian businessmen, enabling a total of 1,500 Palestinians to move in and out of Israel on business;
  • Providing Israeli support for development programs and foreign investment in the West Bank;
  • Allowing 700 Palestinian security police to move into Jenin to maintain law and order — a similar contingent is already at work in Nablus;
  • Allowing the supply of 125 vehicles and 25 Russian-made armored personnel carriers to Palestinian security forces;
  • Building dozens of Palestinian police stations across the West Bank to operate under Israeli supervision and ultimate security control.

Barak aides say he decided to provide the large package at once rather than incrementally to give it a more dramatic effect on the ground.

Israel’s goal is not only to impress the Americans but to alleviate growing Palestinian restiveness. Some observers warn that failure to make such changes on the ground could prompt a third intifada.

Despite Israel’s promises, Palestinian leaders remained skeptical.

“I will believe it when I see it,” declared Saeb Erakat, one of the chief Palestinian negotiators.

Israeli media are skeptical, as well. A cartoon in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot showed Rice riding a slow Barak-faced tortoise, saying to Bush on the phone, “Boss, we are making fantastic progress.”

Whether or not the Israeli moves constitute significant progress, Rice is determined to see that they are carried out “very, very soon.”

U.S. Gen. William Fraser will monitor and verify implementation.

“General Fraser will ensure that 50 roadblocks will be removed and that this will actually have an effect on the freedom of movement in the West Bank,” Rice declared.

Israel’s next steps will depend on Palestinian terrorists. If there is more terrorism, the roadblocks will go back up. If there is not, Israel says more will come down.

On the negotiations front, it seems Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are holding far more intense and extensive discussion than the public on either side was told.

Away from the public eye, Livni and Qureia have been meeting discreetly in Jerusalem twice or three times a week for the past several months. Officials in the know say negotiations this intense haven’t been held since the initial Oslo talks in the early 1990s.

Like the Oslo talks, the Livni-Qureia meetings have been shrouded in secrecy. Both apparently agreed early on to steer clear of the cameras and not to issue progress reports of any kind.

Nothing of substance has been leaked to the media. Some reports have said the meetings include maps, the occasional participation of experts and follow-ups by professionals on both sides.

The aim is produce a detailed Israeli-Palestinian agreement to be approved by the United Nations by the end of the year and be implemented as soon as conditions allow.

For now it is clear to all the parties that as long as Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, and until the Palestinian Authority demonstrates it can stop attacks against Israel, the agreement will remain on the shelf.

The big unknown is how much genuine progress, if any, Livni and Qureia have been able to make.

Clearly, as Rice said, the better the situation on the ground, the more concessions the parties will feel ready to make on the big issues.

That’s why Rice went to Israel: to secure concessions and move things forward. Time will tell whether these changes hold up.

Peace in the Mideast remains an illusion


President Bush’s historic visit to Israel and the Middle East can only delay the inevitable disappointment.

Why? It follows the enormous anticipation of the Annapolis conference

in late 2007 — a conference the overwhelming majority of Israelis believe failed. Since then, the expectations of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as expressed in Annapolis, that an agreement can be ready in 2008, have proven to be naïve and utterly unrealistic.

But unrealistic expectations, misplaced hopes and wasted diplomacy seem to be a hallmark these days of Middle East politics. Prior to the Annapolis conference, Olmert voiced a dangerous delusion when he stated: “For the first time, there is a Palestinian leadership that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.”

The truth is, Abbas has never spoken of a “Jewish state.” At the 2005 Aqaba summit and ever since, he declared President Bush’s reference to a “Jewish state” as “unacceptable.” Instead of confronting this and countless other grave problems, the Israeli government preferred to pretend they did not exist — notably the frightening existence of Hamas.

Since the return of Olmert and Abbas from Annapolis to the Middle East, it has been even more evident that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not a really serious diplomatic process.

“Hamas was the elephant in Annapolis that nobody wanted to talk about,” wrote commentator Herb Keinon. “But it has become impossible to ignore that the size and the strength of Hamas cast a shadow over everything else.”

For any diplomatic process to have theoretical chances for success, both sides must be in a position to compromise. It has become an established fact that Abbas, thanks to Hamas, is utterly unable to compromise on any significant issue. At the same time, any clear position Olmert would make on many sensitive issues like Jerusalem is certain to put a quick end to the present government.

Thus, 2008 will be marked by a lack of decisions until Hamas will have been successfully neutralized and the political situation in Israel — including various corruption charges and the reaction to the Winograd Report — will become clearer.

Israel’s political situation, of course, is anything but clear. Olmert’s continued unpopularity is unquestionably a sign of a huge crisis of confidence promoted by numerous corruption scandals, as well as the last Lebanon War.

Despite difficulties to understand some of the decisions made by Olmert, fairness requires the mentioning that Olmert personally is a mensch. As mayor of Jerusalem, his then first assistant Shmuel Meir died under mysterious circumstances in a car accident.

Thanks to Olmert’s interventions with friends abroad, generous financial help was secured for the widow and her seven children. Up to this day, Olmert tries to visit with the Meir family every Friday and takes part in every child’s birthday party.

His wife, Alisa, a gifted artist, is known for her hospitality, which is not at all limited to those that could be of political usefulness. But Olmert’s private acts of kindness have had no bearing on his dismal political outlook.

The majority of Israelis wish for new elections as a necessary self-cleansing process. Olmert, however, considered by many as subject to recall, is eager to emerge from the mess as a potential apostle for peace.

He doesn’t believe in the resignation of the Labor Party from the government, especially since Ehud Barak does not seem strong enough to compete successfully against his opponent from the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was so instrumental in improving the Israeli economy and enabling a higher standard of living with no high inflation and increasing tourism.

But Netanyahu’s biggest problem is that he cannot expect general elections any time soon. Too many members of the Knesset stubbornly stick to their seats, although they disapprove of the politics of the government.

The Palestinian leadership situation is even more problematic.

The last time I met former President Bill Clinton was at the German Media Award in Baden-Baden. Once again, the charming politician proved to be surprisingly honest. While I was praising him for his great presidency, I also expressed my disappointment for him having treated the late Yasser Arafat as a diplomat, despite the fact that he was always and remained forever a terrorist.

Clinton spontaneously agreed: “I greatly misjudged him. and I realized it too late. Had I offered Arafat 100 percent of the State of Israel, he would have demanded stubbornly 120 percent — more than there is.”

Arafat, father of 40 years of Palestinian terror and the pioneer for worldwide Islamic terror, had founded a corrupt regime of criminals who never cared about improving the conditions of the Palestinians. His successor, Abbas, is being acknowledged in the West as a man of peace and moderation. However, the fact is that Abbas has proven again and again that he is suffering from catastrophic indecisiveness and inability to control the different factions of Fatah.

“Throwing money at Fatah will not replace its missing backbone,” said Mortimer Zuckerman, U.S. News and World Report’s editor in chief.

The economic situation in the Palestinian territories is neither a reflection of positive initiatives on behalf of Abbas nor a decline in corruption.

On Palestinian TV, children continue to be indoctrinated to sacrifice their lives for Allah; the preaching of hatred against Israel in Palestinian schoolbooks, with the ultimate goal of destroying Israel as religious duty, continues and exemplifies that no significant peace efforts can be expected, unless the climate of hatred disappears. Abbas, however, has shown in his uncompromising attitude with contentious issues like borders, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees, that no serious, true initiatives for peace can be expected.

Israel started abolishing checkpoints to help Abbas with more room to maneuver within the Palestinian Authority, despite strong protest from the military. Israel supplies Abbas with weapons, knowing very well that in the past, Palestinians have used these weapons against Israel. To finish off the craziness, word spread out of Ramallah that Abbas’ Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade will be integrated into the Palestinian police force (the brigade, which definitely promotes terrorism, has killed more Israelis than Hamas.).

As a gesture of good will, Israel released many hundreds of prisoners, instead of trading them for kidnapped Israelis. Remember: 30 fatal terrorist attacks have been carried out by terrorists who had been released from Israeli prisons. One would expect no further concessions from the Israeli government, unless an actual counteroffer related to truly fighting terrorism was presented.

No. 1 goal for new consul — telling L.A. ‘what Israel is’


Yaakov Dayan, the new Israeli consul general for the Southwestern states, has just moved into his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard.

The walls are bare and pockmarked with nail holes, but leaning against a chair are the first two pictures to go up. One is a head drawing of David Ben-Gurion, surrounded by the signatures of the state’s founding fathers and mothers, affixed to Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence.

The second is a childish drawing on cheap paper from a Muslim refugee girl in Kosovo, decorated with hearts to convey her gratitude to Dayan and Israel.

During Dayan’s 13 years as a career diplomat, including sensitive negotiations with Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians; service in Athens and Washington, and as top aide to foreign ministers, ranging from Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon up to the present Tzipi Livni, the Kosovo experience stands out.

In the spring of 1999, masses of refugees were fleeing the “cleansing” of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces. One day, while on a brief vacation inside Israel, Dayan got a call to leave immediately as second in command of a massive Israeli relief mission to the embattled region.

“I left on a plane with 80 Israeli soldiers, nurses and relief workers, and two days later, we had set up camp for 20,000 refugees, planted a huge Israeli flag and organized an airlift involving 16 Israeli planes,” Dayan recalls.

“This effort made a huge impression on the refugees and on myself,” he adds. “I couldn’t help thinking that 60 years earlier, my people had been refugees, too.”

Dayan, 41, cuts a fine figure of a diplomat. Leading-man handsome, 6-feet-2, he is lean to skinny, weighing 155 pounds, the same weight as during his army service 22 years ago.

“Good genes,” he says, but he does work out on the tennis and basketball courts, when time permits.

One of the first decisions he had to make as consul general was to decide which first name to print on his business card. It’s “Yaakov” on his birth certificate in Tel Aviv, but while serving in Washington, he went as “Jacob,” and he is likely to do the same here.

Actually, among friends, colleagues and the Israeli media, he is universally addressed as “Yaki.” Unfortunately, this is pronounced as “yucky,” and he has decided to forgo the nickname when dealing with Americans.

Unrelated to the Moshe Dayan family, he owes his surname to his Lithuanian-born father, who, as a boy during World War II, saw his own father killed by Lithuanian fascists. The boy escaped and joined the Russian army. Later, he met and married the consul general’s mother, who was born in Warsaw and spent the war years in a Soviet gulag.

Dayan’s own marriage to Galit represents the Israeli melting pot in action, he observes. Her father came to Israel from Morocco, her mother from Algeria and her own accomplishments are impressive. She holds a doctorate in Egyptology from Hebrew University, a degree in organizational development from Georgetown University and does consulting for high-tech companies and financial institutions.

The Dayans have three children, Daphne, 14; Tal, 11; and Itay, 4, all attending Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

As a career foreign service officer, Dayan is strictly neutral on the Israeli political scene but notes that he comes from a secular-Zionist background.

Since meeting his wife and her Sephardic family, he has become more involved in religion, which “is now an inseparable part of our life,” he says. The family celebrated Daphne’s bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue on Mount Scopus.

In Israel’s Foreign Ministry, career officials actively compete for desirable appointments, and when it came to Dayan’s turn, he requested appointment as either ambassador to Turkey or consul general in Los Angeles.

Granted our pleasant weather, Dayan was asked why would an ambitious young diplomat, who had been deeply involved in some of the most crucial negotiations affecting his country’s future, opt for a post devoid of far-reaching policy decisions?

In the past, The Journal has put the same question to Los Angeles-based diplomats from other countries, and, as Dayan’s answer confirmed, Angelenos may be underestimating their own importance in foreign eyes.

“Our presence here is the seventh-largest Israeli mission in the world,” he says. “Southern California and the Southwestern states wield great economic power and technological know-how, are home to an influential Jewish community and the concentration of Israelis is the largest in the Diaspora.”

From his Los Angeles headquarters, Dayan directs a staff of 60 and has just added the position of police liaison.

“I admit that it was very challenging to deal with hardcore strategic issues, and I still have the virus in my blood,” he says. “But there is a different kind of excitement in serving here, and the potential is completely different.”

During their initial meeting, he told staff members that they were lucky to work among such a loving outside community but also warned them not to take United States’ support for granted.

Dayan has set himself three immediate goals. One is to build on Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations next year to educate, or re-educate, the Jewish and general communities as “to what Israel is.”

“Most people under 55 don’t even know about the Six-Day War in 1967,” he observes. “Few realize that every American interacts, from dawn to dusk, with Israeli technological contributions, from cellphones and computers to medical advances.

“Even among Jews, not all know or care about Israel, and many have just drifted away,” he adds. “We need to open a dialogue with them, and if that leads to arguments, that’s fine.”

A second priority is “to raise awareness of the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, not just to Israel, but to neighboring Arab states and the Western world.”

He believes that diplomatic and other pressures on Iran can have an effect.

Rep. Lantos’ call for sanctions and diplomacy puzzles L.A. Iranians


Tom Lantos, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, made headlines last April when he reiterated his desire to travel to Iran for informal talks with Iranian officials. And yet one month later the Democratic congressman from San Mateo introduced a tough Iran divestment bill with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that the House overwhelmingly passed last week.

The seemingly contradictory approach in dealing with Iran’s regime has many in the local Jewish and Iranian American communities scratching their heads. But Lantos says the approach is consistent because his proposed restrictions and sanctions may discourage the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear weapons program.

“I am an unqualified proponent of dialogue that has nothing to do with the nature of my legislation,” Lantos told The Journal. “I go to countries which we have very bad relations or no relations with whatsoever, because my purpose is to put things on a diplomatic track and hopefully improve relations. Iran is no exception.”

Lantos pointed to his past efforts in opening lines of communications through meetings with officials in Libya, North Korea and the former Soviet Union as proof of his ability to make diplomatic progress.

“In the 1980s I took delegations from Congress to the Soviet Union when that was not the popular thing to do,” Lantos said. “It didn’t prevent me from going to the Soviet Union and talking to them when they had nuclear weapons pointed at us.”

In 1998, Lantos was unsuccessful in his request for a meeting with Mohammad Khatami after the moderate Iranian president called for an exchange of writers, scholars and artists between the United States and Iran. Lantos last visited the country in 1978 as a San Francisco State University economics professor.

Lantos, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, would not discuss whether he would address statements of Holocaust denial made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he were to travel to Tehran. Still, local Jewish leaders said a possible journey to Iran by Lantos could make a significant symbolic statement.

“The regime is officially at war with the memory of the Shoah, and Congressman Lantos’ mere presence exposes the big lie without even saying a word,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who also serves on the House Foreign Relations committee, said such a visit could improve U.S. chances of winning international support for American policies toward Iran.

“What greater proof that Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and liar than to be confronted by Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor,” Sherman said. “Lantos’ position is that the discussions with the Iranians are not a special gift to them, but rather would improve our image in the world and help us mobilize the world against the Iranian program.”

Local Jewish leaders also said they were confident that Lantos would be one of the best U.S. officials to deal with Iran based on his longstanding record during his tenure in Congress.

“He is aggressive and out front to stand up for human rights, to stand up for Israel and stand against anti-Semitism without any apologies,” Cooper said. “At the same time he would be able to leverage his position to see if there is a way to mitigate those flash points through personal involvement in the issues.”

White House officials declined to comment on Lantos’ legislation, which passed the House on Sept. 25 in a 397-16 vote; the bill’s companion in the Senate is stalled and likely won’t be considered this year.

Some Middle East experts said they were skeptical of Lantos’ past diplomatic efforts in the region, as countries like Libya have not improved human rights conditions.

“The more Lantos has traveled to Tripoli, the more Qadhafi has cracked down on dissidents and dissent,” said Michael Rubin, a resident Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. “Take the case of Fathi El-Jahmi, Libya’s leading peaceful secular dissident. He was put in prison after Lantos’ first trip and his visitation and medical care have been stripped with each passing Lantos visit.”

Southern California Iranian Jewish leaders said that while Lantos has been a close friend to the community and he has sought their advice on issues of Iran, his proposed visit to Iran might not yield any diplomatic breakthroughs.

“I don’t believe talking with the Islamic Republic would yield much benefit to the United States. Instead, it could disenfranchise the people of Iran who consider the United States to be their allies,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation. “It will allow the Islamic Republic more time to continue with its nuclear weapons program.”

Several Iran experts said that while Lantos and other politicians have good intentions to resolve problems with the Iranian regime through dialogue, such strategies carried out by European leaders between 2000 and 2005 have proven to be unfruitful.

“Dialogue turned out to be a sham,” said Rubin, a longtime scholar of Iran’s regime. “Rather than embrace the West, we now know that the Iranian government invested 70 percent of its hard currency windfall into its covert [nuclear] programs.”

Calls made to the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations were not returned.

Other Iran experts said that if Lantos were to travel to Iran on a diplomatic mission, he would have some success persuading moderate Iranian officials.

“It would be particularly useful if Mr. Lantos could meet with the more reform-minded members of parliament, in order to show that he is not proposing some deal with the regime which sells out the democratic cause,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the bipartisan Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington D.C.

Help Bush


George W. Bush has one last chance to leave behind a great legacy in the Middle East, and I want to help him. He has a year and a half left to support and encourage agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and to midwife and recognize the state of Palestine.

Call this a kooky lefty dream, but it is one shared by such lefties as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Israel President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and, of course, George W. Bush.

“I think that’s the goal they’re shooting for,” an Israeli diplomat told me by phone last week. Olmert has said twice in the past few weeks that we want to see a Palestinian state in “as short a time as possible.”

An international meeting has been set for November for final status peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have agreed to support the talks, which the diplomat said might take place in the United States.

Two weeks ago, Olmert took the unprecedented and symbolic step of meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Jericho to discuss fundamental issues in preparation for the November meeting. The Forward newspaper has reported that there is now a “frenzy of diplomatic activity aimed at reaching initial understandings before the conference convenes.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why is this night different from all other nights?

Middle East summits past have demonstrated nothing but the wisdom of despair. They raise and dash expectations as surely and as quickly as, say, the networks’ fall lineup. But this fall may be different, and the difference can be explained in one four-letter word: Iran.

Iran is on its way to becoming a hegemonic power in the Middle East, something that Israelis and their Sunni Arab neighbors strongly oppose. By defeating the Iranian regime’s two biggest foes — the Taliban and Iraq — America has greatly strengthened Iran’s power.

Israel’s war in Lebanon last summer against the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Iran-backed Hamas victory in the Gaza elections have combined to make the specter of waxing Shiite power a common cause among the Jewish state and her Arab neighbors. Who would have thought: The enemy of my enemy is a Jewish state.

There are other reasons for optimism. The rise of Hamas in Gaza has made Israel aware that the time to support Palestinian moderates like Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is now.

Olmert and Bush and Livni and Rice share close relationships. Olmert stood up for the president long after the American public turned against him.

On the Palestinian side, there are two decent leaders in Abbas and Fayyad. The latter is a man with a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility.

Abbas himself has seen one possible future — Hamastan — and chosen to resist it.

“Hamas scarred Abbas,” Dr. Ziad Asali told me. “He found the testosterone he was accused of lacking.”

Asali, a Washington, D.C.-based endocrinologist, was in Los Angeles representing the American Task Force for Palestine, of which he is chairman. The scion of an old Jerusalem family, he has close ties to Palestinian leadership.

He made it clear that mainstream Palestinian thinking can be summed up in two words: security and dignity. The elements of such an agreement, which would bring physical and economic security to the Palestinians and dignity to their cause, are well known to all parties and hardly elusive.

“The Palestinians are psychologically ready to make this deal with Israel,” he told me. “If the U.S., Israel and the moderate Arab states get involved, it will be very hard for rejectionists to win this thing.”

What about Gaza? How can Israel even think of making peace when rockets are raining down on its citizens from Gaza?

The Israeli diplomat said the key is a “West Bank first” approach that retains some settlement blocs in exchange for other land, and that will produce an agreement that can only strengthen moderate forces. Asali said such an agreement would be a blow to Hamas.

“If Hamas doesn’t want it, they can fight it in elections. Let the Gazan people see what’s happening in the rest of the Palestinian state and let them choose.”

The key, in short, is to build a bipartisan, interdenominational coalition of nonfanatics. But Bush can and must lead the way. “I don’t think the Palestinians and the Israelis will get out of this mess on their own,” Asali said.

No one can say with a straight face that an agreement will automatically bring Israel peace and harmony and acceptance, but it will lift a major roadblock along the path. Bush may believe that eventual progress in Iraq will one day vindicate his decision to go to war there, but he must know that presiding over the international agreements that birth a state of Palestine will be an instant, enduring and irreplaceable legacy.

I want to help him. And considering the firestorm of opposition he will face from some Jews and Christians here and abroad and in his own circle, you should, too.

Bush flirts with peace talks but won’t commit to Palestinians


The rug that Syrian President Bashar pulled out from under his widely reported but vaguely defined peace offensive last week was a Persian weave.

He had been talking for months about unconditionally resuming negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights, and it seemed like Israel, under American pressure, was the disinterested party. Then roles were quickly reversed in a week filled with feints and false starts, but so far there’s been more motion than movement.

President George W. Bush kicked off the week by reaffirming his vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was widely seen as an attempt to divert attention from his debacle in Iraq rather than a commitment to sustained diplomacy.

That view was reinforced by a White House mailing to Jewish leaders recommending an article by historian Michael Oren quoting Israeli officials as satisfied “there were no changes in Bush’s policies.”

White House aides also quickly shot down any notion that the “international meeting” Bush announced would be a peace conference. Just a meeting, they said, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Bush may not even show up. And don’t look for many Arab leaders to be there, either. The price of admission will be recognition of Israel, Bush said. That leaves out all those who should be there, like Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iraq.

That’s right, Iraq. Bush’s icon of Arab democracy where leaders have repeatedly denounced the Zionist enemy and have no more interest in peace than that other benefactor of Bush’s democracy crusade — Hamas.

Assad’s shift hardly seemed coincidental, coming on the eve of a visit by his Iranian benefactor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to a London-based Arabic newspaper, Ahmadinejad signed a strategic agreement with Syria promising increased military, political and economic assistance conditioned on a refusal to make peace with Israel.

To press his point, Ahmadinejad also met in Damascus with leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups, encouraging them to unite in armed struggle against Israel, and he pledged Iran’s support.

Reversing his recent rhetoric, Assad announced he would resume talks with Israel only through a third party and only with advance written Israeli “guarantees” to meet all his demands, including a full return of the Golan Heights.

That came on the heels of a tactical shift by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who after months of dodging Assad’s probes, told Al-Arabiya television last week that he is ready for direct talks without preconditions.

Olmert had been under pressure from Washington to rebuff Assad’s peace feelers on the assumption the Syrian leader was just trying to deflect American pressure to stop aiding the Iraqi insurgents. As a condition for talks, Olmert had demanded Assad withdraw his backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israel Islamic extremist groups prior to any talks.

American sanctions have had little impact on Assad’s behavior, and the Syrian dictator apparently concluded threats of military action were a bluff in light of American problems in Iraq and Israel’s poor performance against Hezbollah in Lebanon last year.

Iran, according to Israeli analysts, has been trying to raise regional tensions by telling Assad that Israel is planning a war against Syria to block Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon and to erase last year’s failures. Ahmadinejad’s real goal may be to discourage American or Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, they say.

The other prominent visitor to the region this week, with a totally opposite agenda, is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the new Middle East envoy for the Quartet (United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia). His assignment is to help the Palestinians rebuild their institutions and economy, but he’d like to expand that and be an active peace negotiator as well.

That’s not what President Bush had in mind when he outsourced Middle East diplomacy to his old friend and loyal Iraq war partner. Blair has been a longtime advocate of accelerating the peace process and has the backing of three quarters of the Quartet.

His greatest obstacle might be Rice, who doesn’t want him treading on her turf. She’s made it clear that he should stick to his official mandate. That’s the way Ehud Olmert wants it, too; he’s no more ready than the Americans for the final status negotiations that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants.

But it’s more than just territorial for Rice; her boss likes to talk about peace but has been unwilling to do the heavy lifting needed to get negotiations off the ground.

Initially he didn’t want to be seen following the failed footsteps of his predecessors –Poppy and Bill Clinton — but Iraq overtook that. Bush paid lip service to Middle East peace because the Arabs, his allies and the Baker-Hamilton Commission said showing movement on that front was essential to convincing others to help rescue him from his Iraq morass.

Bush will hear that again this week when Jordanian King Abdullah II comes to the White House to tell him he’s not moving aggressively enough on the Palestinian front. The president will assure his royal visitor of his sincere desire for peace, but the reality is Bush’s desire to be the father of Palestinian statehood hasn’t gone beyond the flirtation stage. Wishes don’t beget results.

From Damascus to Jerusalem to Ramallah to Washington, these days of summer sizzle are looking like a time of peace fizzle.

Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.

Only democratization can fight Islamists


Natan Sharansky’s June 5-6 Democracy and Security Conference in Prague could reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to support the growth of liberal democracy. If not, the Islamists win a crucial advantage.

There are two basic foreign policy philosophies. The idealist school of thought, which holds that our national interests include the spread of liberal democracy, has a long history in the United States, going back at least to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. It competes with the realist school, which defines national interests narrowly and elevates stability as the foremost value in international relations. President Bush came to office as a realist, and in a stunning post-Sept. 11 transformation became a hard-core idealist.

However, one can be an inept or ill-served idealist. Bush’s errors have led many to reject the underlying theory. But we can throw out the bathwater of Bush’s mistakes, while keeping the baby of democratization.

Under the influence of Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy,” Bush understood that liberal democracies are rarely dangerous to one another. Therefore, fostering democratization abroad bolsters international security and is in our national interest.

As Bush said in Prague, “Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respond to the rights of its neighbors. History proves him right. Governments accountable to their people do not attack each other.”

Bush’s rhetoric has been superb, but his follow through has been inconsistent. In Egypt, for example, Bush pressed President Hosni Mubarak for multicandidate presidential elections. But the election was held under restrictive regulations that heavily favored the ruling party, and today, Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak, sits in an Egyptian prison.

Former Egyptian political prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim said in Prague, “I feel disappointed and betrayed by George Bush. He said that he is promoting democracy, but he has been manipulated by President Hosni Mubarak.”

Worse, Bush apparently has a shallow understanding of liberal democracy, equating it with elections. This is clearly nonsense, considering the elections regularly held in such citadels of liberty as the Soviet Union, Cuba and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In fact, elections without the requisite foundations of an open society, including the rule of law, independent media and noncorrupt security forces, merely permit the most thuggish elements to seize control. This was grimly demonstrated by the Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power.

Nevertheless, this does not invalidate the idealist theory. It simply implies that nurturing liberal democracy requires patience; elections must come at the end, not the beginning, of the process.

Nor has Bush properly used all the foreign policy instruments at his disposal. Military action must be part of the nation’s toolbox, but economic and political pressure are probably more effective in the long run during an ideological war, such as the current war against Islamism.

Bush should have learned this from Sharansky. After all, the United States didn’t win the Cold War by invading or bombing the Soviet Union. The Jackson/Vannik Amendment, linking trade with free emigration, and the Helsinki accords on human rights did at least as much to topple the U.S.S.R. as NATO’s military strength.

Thus, the final document of the Prague conference includes calls for the following:

  • “Seeking national and international initiatives, in the spirit of the Helsinki accords, that link bilateral and international relations to the question of human rights.”
  • “Exerting pressure through peaceful diplomatic, political and economic means on governments and groups abusing human rights to discontinue their practices.”
  • “Providing incentives, through diplomatic, political and economic means, to governments and groups willing to improve the human rights record in their countries and to embark on the road to democracy.”

Nothing has been as disillusioning, nor given realists so much temptation to say, “I told you so,” as Iraq. There’s plenty to be unhappy about when considering post-liberation Iraq.

Still, the essence of the problem is that the Islamists are fighting back. That shouldn’t surprise us. It would be surprising if they didn’t. It just means, as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in Prague, “We have a responsibility to support the forces of freedom not only when it is easy but when it is hard.”

It is time to renew our commitment to liberalization and democratization — it is what the Islamists fear most. Congress should pass comprehensive legislation conditioning relations between the United States and nonliberal democracies on progress toward liberalization. This is not imperialism. It is support for decent values and democracies abroad.

We have the right to condition trade, foreign aid and other goodies on the character of the regime with which we are dealing. If we don’t, we tacitly support the conditions under which Islamism has flourished. Our national interests are at stake.


Paul Kujawsky is a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee.

Cooling down the the Iran rhetoric can help get real results


The Jewish community is just as concerned as ever about the menace of a nuclear Iran, but it is starting to temper its red-hot rhetoric on the issue.

The reason: a growing sense that calling Iran the new Nazi Germany, its madman leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Hitler reborn, is hurting the community-wide effort to ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on the Tehran regime.

Few are sanguine about the Iranian threat, but there is a growing realization that a war-weary nation may be hypersensitive to political arguments that sound a lot like calls for yet another war.

Talk to a random sampling of Jewish leaders and one thing leaps out: There is almost wall-to-wall agreement that a nuclear Iran represents a major threat to nations across the Middle East and Europe, to U.S. interests around the world and in particular to Israel, a country Ahmadinejad thinks should be erased from the globe.

The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the anti-Israel terrorist groups Iran has so recklessly supported is terrifying; so is the specter of that country’s growing missile arsenal.

But is the suggestion that this is the worst Israel has ever faced justified? Does a nuclear Iran automatically mean atomic war in the Middle East and a death sentence for the Jewish state? Probably not, but that’s the impression conveyed by major Jewish groups.

The experts aren’t so sure. Many say that despite Ahmadinejad’s threats, the Iranians are not, in fact, suicidal. Even Ahmadinejad understands that any nuclear attack against Israel, with its assumed second-strike capability, would result in his country’s utter destruction.

That leads to this question: When does high-octane rhetoric work, and when does it become counterproductive?

It may be true that the Nazi comparisons from Israeli leaders such as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively mobilized Jewish activists across the political spectrum.

Israel has overcome so many dire threats over the years that there is complacency among many American Jews; framing Iran’s nuclear quest as a likely precursor to a new Holocaust rallied disparate organizations to the cause.

And let’s be honest; sounding the air raid sirens about Iran is good for fundraising, a unifying factor in a Jewish community torn by many questions of Mideast policy.

But that rhetoric has risks. Once started, it tends to build on itself as leaders and organizations try to outdo each other.

It also tends to isolate the Jewish community, especially in the current anxious political environment.

Americans have soured on the war in Iraq — which, after all, started with exaggerated claims involving weapons of mass destruction and misrepresentations about Iraq’s role in Sept. 11.

Apocalyptic talk about Iran may sell in Washington, which is used to verbal overkill, but it doesn’t work well in state legislatures and city councils across the country, where the ever-growing Iraq body count is more real and immediate.

And increasingly, that’s where the most effective action is taking place, as local and state governments take up selective divestment resolutions aimed at Iran.

International sanctions are too easily punctured by a handful of countries eager to reap profits in dealing with Iran, but targeted divestment against companies that work in Iran’s oil sector is a way to hit the Iranians where it hurts.

Some Jewish leaders say that what local politicians want to learn about is how Iran threatens U.S. interests, and how local bodies can act to help reduce that threat while also reducing the chances of another war.

And they say the hyperbole of Nazi comparisons, which imply that war is the only answer, turn off potential coalition partners and make it harder to build political support for local and state divestment efforts.

Polls show a strong majority of American Jews is opposed to U.S. military action to stop Iran. But that doesn’t come across when Jewish leaders talk about the new Nazis in the Middle East, since only those who have taken leave of their senses believe diplomacy would have stopped Adolf Hitler.

Still, the strident rhetoric keeps coming from Jewish boardrooms — in part because of uncertainty over what Israel’s leaders want.

Officials in Jerusalem are not pumping for U.S. military action, but they have made it clear they do not want the Bush administration’s hands tied when it comes to that option — the reason pro-Israel groups have generally opposed congressional efforts to force President Bush to come back to them for additional authorization before any Iran strike.

And in a recent Anti-Defamation League poll, 71 percent of Israelis surveyed said the U.S. “should use force” to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail.

But around the country, local Jewish leaders are starting to realize that a measured, pragmatic and rhetorically temperate approach to Iran may be the best way to win allies in the effort to generate effective economic pressure on Iran.

Briefs: Mass Shoah grave discovered in Ukraine; Report: Israel wants to talk with Syria; German Jews


Mass Grave Discovered in Ukraine

The Associated Press reported Tuesday on the discovery in May of a previously unknown mass grave in southern Ukraine that may contain remains of thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis. The report says that the finding came by accident, when gas pipelines were being laid in the village of Gvozdavka-1, near Odessa. A concentration camp nearby, established in 1941, was the site of the killing of about 5,000 Jews according to Roman Shvartsman, a spokesman for the area’s Jewish community and the source for the report.

Report: Israel Seeks Syria Talks

Israel reportedly plans to seek U.S. approval for launching secret peace talks with Syria. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, who heads out to Washington this week for routine bilateral strategic talks, will raise the idea of new back-door negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus, Yediot Acharonot reported Monday. According to the newspaper, Mofaz plans to tell Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Syria’s demand for a return of the Golan Heights, and its recent build-up of forces near the territory, warrants asking what it would be willing to give Israel in exchange for a peaceful resolution. Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied the report, which comes amid rising fears of an armed confrontation on the Syrian front.

“The military is prepared for any eventuality on the north, but at the same time, we should not rule out any call for peace by Syria,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Israel’s Army Radio, without elaborating.

UJC Approves Budget, Reorganization

The United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) board of trustees approved a $40.2 million budget for 2007-08, effectively endorsing a plan to reorganize the umbrella organization for North America’s federation system.

The budget, passed Monday at UJC governance meetings in New York, is up from $38.8 million last year.

To pay for the budget increase, the UJC is asking for a 3.7 percent increase in dues from each of its 144 member federations.

The budget includes $2 million to be spent on program changes and a $2.6 million savings from cutting 24 jobs, according to a UJC source. According to the reorganization plan, which was introduced informally in March, the UJC will dissolve its pillar system and form two operating units.

One will be based in Israel and focus on Israel and overseas fund raising and operations. The other will be based in the United States and concentrate on helping the federations increase their donor base and campaigns. The budget also includes a $1.5 million research and development fund for “new strategies.”

The budget “was passed overwhelmingly,” UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz said. A trustee who asked not to be identified said “there were a number of federations that voted no either on the budget itself or on the dues increase.”

Those federations include Detroit, and Palm Beach and South Palm Beach in Florida.

German Jews Resist Aliyah Body

Leaders of German Jewry say they do not want Israel to encourage more immigration to the Jewish state by expanding the reach of its government body dedicated to promoting aliyah. The leaders said they would even ask for the German government’s help in resisting attempts by Nativ, the Israeli government entity that encourages immigration from the former Soviet Union, to expand its authority to Germany, Ha’aretz reported.

In September, two Nativ officials will begin work in Germany, home to 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews that recently moved there from the former Soviet Union.

Nativ has long wanted to work in Germany, but faced opposition from the Jewish Agency, which does the same work. But now that Nativ is under the control of Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the group will begin running an ulpan and other educational programs in conjunction with the Jewish Agency.

Absorption Minister Ze’ev Boim, who previously oversaw Nativ, did not want the organization to expand because he believed it was unnecessary given the Jewish Agency’s presence. But Lieberman has said publicly that he favors replacing the American-dominated Jewish Agency with Nativ.

Dems Favor Clinton As Envoy

Democratic candidates for president said they would use former President Bill Clinton as a peace envoy. Four hopefuls in Sunday night’s debate on CNN, when asked how they would use Clinton, said envoy would be their preferred choice.

Clinton’s presidency ended with a failed attempt to hammer out a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli final status deal, but negotiators for both sides praised him for coming closer to achieving an agreement than any other broker.

Clinton’s wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel spoke of using Clinton as an envoy in general terms, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson specified his usefulness in the Middle East, among other regions.

“I believe he is needed in the Middle East,” Richardson said. “This administration has not had a Middle East peace envoy as other bipartisan administrations have had. We have serious problems in the Middle East. Our great ally Israel, which I think needs buttressing, right now is less safe than it was when President Bush came in.”

The other candidates in the debate, which took place in New Hampshire, were not asked the question.

Conservative Union Opens to Gay Staff

In a vote June 2, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, representing about 700 Conservative synagogues moved to change its hiring practices, according to a press release. The change applies only to the union itself; Conservative synagogues retain the right to decide independently whether to modify their hiring guidelines or not.

“As a movement that has always integrated our commitment to halachah — Jewish law — with our desire to see the spirit of God in all people, we are glad to be able to take this step,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the organization’s executive vice president.

The decision comes six months after the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians and to allow rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies. The committee also endorsed a rabbinic opinion upholding the traditional ban on gay rabbis and gay unions.

Pelosi-Palooza


One of the first things Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) did on her controversial trip to the Middle East was meet with the families of the three Israeli soldiers heldcaptive by Hamas and Hezbollah. The families gave Pelosi dog tags printed with their loved ones’ names.

When she and her fellow members of Congress arrived in Syria, they presented Syrian President Bashir Assad with the dog tags and asked for his help in securing the Israelis’ release.

Assad took the mementos from Pelosi, but betrayed no expression. This exchange has been reported in press accounts of the trip. But according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who accompanied Pelosi, she went a step further: She presented Assad with a list of names of other Israeli soldiers from previous wars as yet unaccounted for.

“She went through their names,” Waxman told me in a phone interview when he returned. “She did that at each stop.”

To paint the Pelosi trip as anything less than helpful to American and Israeli interests, and to depict Pelosi and those who accompanied her as anything less than firm and diplomatic in representing American interests, is foolish.

Vice President Dick Cheney went on the Rush Limbaugh radio program to demean the trip and cast doubts on the toughness of its participants (see related story, page 10). I can only assume Limbaugh’s listeners have never heard of Google. Pelosi has a sterling voting record on Israel. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, knows a thing or two about standing up to despots. Waxman has been a fixture of pro-Israel legislation for more than two decades. He joined the Israel leg of the trip after spending Passover with his daughter and grandchildren, who live on a moshav near Jerusalem. I asked him what he ate at the banquets in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“Fish and vegetables,” he said. “They didn’t serve us matzah.”

The purpose of the trip, Waxman said, was simple: to convey to Arab leaders the importance of clamping down on terrorists and of pursuing peace with Israel. The response of the Arab leaders was welcoming but hardly encouraging.

“The thing that struck me was how weak [Palestinian leader] Abu Mazen and how weak the government of Syria are,” Waxman said. “Neither seems to be able to control Hamas or Hezbollah.”

That leaves Israel without a strong partner, and Israel itself has a weak leader in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating hovers just above the opinion polls’ margin of error of 4 percent. The dust-up over whether Pelosi accurately conveyed the Israeli prime minister’s message to Syria seemed resolved by Monday, when Pelosi called Olmert, who, according to Waxman, contradicted himself and expressed his approval for her actions.

But Pelosi, Waxman and company weren’t there to solve the Mideast crisis. They went to communicate America’s position and to keep dialogue open. It’s called diplomacy.

“The speaker told each leader that the United States’ interest is a safe and secure Jewish State of Israel,” Waxman recounted. “And she made sure they heard her say it that way.”

As for the Israeli prisoners, Waxman described a run-around. The Palestinians said the Egyptians and Syrians were calling the shots. The Syrians said they had no sway over Hezbollah, which captured two of the soldiers. But one can hope that it made an impression on Assad when the third most powerful American leader pressed those Israeli dog tags into his palm.

So why all the negativity?

Waxman said the administration is focused on building a case against the Democrats in preparation for a showdown over the Iraq War funding bill. The more they can paint Democrats as weak and irresponsible, the more likely the Democrats will knuckle under and let the president continue the war unchecked. It’s been known to happen.

So Cheney trashes the reputation of men like Lantos and Waxman (who, by the way, has doggedly pursued waste and mismanagement in Iraq by Halliburton, the company that made Cheney rich), and it’s politics as usual.

But those who know better, Republican or Democrat, should send a clear message to Cheney: Send Pelosi back.

That’s right. She did a superb job. The Arab media love her — on C-SPAN I watched an al-Arabiya reporter gush over her — and, what’s more, the success of her trip had to send shivers through Teheran. Syria, a Sunni majority country whose Allawite leadership is a Shiite offshoot, is Iran’s strongest ally in the Middle East.

“Was Teheran happy about the visit of the speaker?” said Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister and vice chancellor of Germany, at a Pacific Council for International Policy luncheon last week. “I would say no. Because once they lose Syria, they lose their last ally in the region.”

But Pelosi’s critics, who include The Washington Post editorial page, don’t see it that way. They say such visits can undermine the president’s foreign policy.

And how’s that policy working out? Well, this week, Iran announced it would start producing industrial quantities of nuclear material.

Dear Speaker Pelosi: I hear Teheran is beautiful in the spring.

Rep. Waxman will speak April 15 at 10 a.m. at Plummer Park about his trip to Syria. For more information and to R.S.V.P., contact (323) 658-8683.

Progressive values propel Daniel Sokatch’s rising star


When Daniel Sokatch enrolled in rabbinical school in Israel in 1994, he had visions of becoming a religious leader dedicated to social justice, much in the vein of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Sokatch, now 38, quickly realized that the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem was committed to training rabbis and not activists. So after eight months, he decided to quit.

Sokatch met with the school’s dean at the time to break the news, telling him that he planned to get a law degree, study international relations and work in the Jewish community, pursuing social justice in some capacity. The dean looked at Sokatch, paused, and shocked him by promising to forgive the thousands of dollars in loans Sokatch had racked up for school tuition.

“I believe you’ll do everything you say you’re going to do,” he said.
And so he has. Sokatch is the founding executive director of Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a nondenominational group dedicated, in his words, to “connecting Jews to the critical social justice issues facing our city, such as criminal and economic justice and interfaith dialogue. ”

Under Sokatch’s seven-year tenure, PJA’s membership has reached 4,000. In May 2005, the nonprofit opened a second office in San Francisco.

The Forward has twice named Sokatch to the “Forward 50,” a listing of the most influential Jews in America.

“He has kept a steady focus on labor and immigrant issues, leading efforts for Muslim-Jewish dialogue and helping patch up labor disputes,” the newspaper said.

PJA has played an important role in the enactment of anti-sweatshop legislation in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, reflecting Sokatch’s belief that “kosher should be about more than the way food’s prepared; it should be about the way people are treated who work with us.” PJA has also successfully lobbied on behalf of Los Angeles hotel workers to increase their wages. In 2002, PJA created a mediation program for nonviolent juvenile offenders that offers an alternative to incarceration. The program has a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent.

“I think Daniel is a rising star in the Jewish professional constellation of this city,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “He’s smart, charismatic and effective.”

PJA has also taken controversial steps to keep alive communication between local Muslims and Jews. Early next month, the PJA and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are expected to unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a program designed to foster greater interfaith dialogue and cooperation. (See related story on page 14.)

Sokatch, as he promised the HUC-JIR dean all those years ago, did become a lawyer. But it is his Jewish values that most define him. He steeps PJA’s efforts in Jewish tradition and in tikkun olam (heal the world), giving political and social action a religious basis. His single-minded commitment often drives him to put in 70-hour work weeks and push until some measure of justice is done.

“If you are Jewish, whether secular or religious, whether ethnically or culturally, atheist or Orthodox, there is a central animating principle to being Jewish, which is repair the world,” Sokatch said. “That is the prophetic mission and the rabbinic imperative.”

Sokatch and his younger brother, Andrew, now an expert in educational reform and child welfare, grew up in Cheshire, Conn., in a “good, Jewish liberal home.” His father, Sy, worked as the director of human resources at Yale University. His mother, Ann, studied counseling psychology at Southern Connecticut State College. From his parents, he said he learned “the importance of the warmth and love of family and the need to work hard.”

But it was a trio of older relatives in New York City, he said, who shaped his views on civic engagement. His aunt, Lottie Gold, served as New York state’s first female deputy secretary of state in the 1950s. Sydney Gold, his uncle, and Irving Stillerman, his maternal grandfather, were New York City judges.

“What I got from these people was a deep, deep sense of patriotism and a love of country,” Sokatch said. “They taught me that service to the community at large was something we just did, both as Jews and as Americans.”

Judaism was another major influence. Raised Reform, Sokatch attended Jewish summer camps and went to Hebrew school throughout high school.

“I loved all aspects of Judaism, the traditions, the holidays, the story of Israel,” he said. “It always felt natural to me. It felt like breathing.”
At 11, his family moved from liberal New England to conservative Cincinnati, where Sokatch spent nearly a decade. It was there, Sokatch said, where he learned that “there is no us or them, blue states or red states; we’re all Americans who share the same goals of a better world.”

Sokatch spent his junior year of college in Ireland, studying the Irish conflict. He later earned a master’s degree in international affairs at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston, further deepening his empathy for and appreciation of different cultures.

“He’s a 21st-century prophet,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who calls himself a “soul” friend of Sokatch. “By that, I mean Daniel knows that God is for all people and cares about the happiness and healing of everyone.”

Sokatch’s even-keeled temperament and unfailing graciousness have won him plaudits from many in the Jewish community who do not always share his political views. Gary Ratner, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region, said he considers Sokatch an “excellent, excellent, fine young man” with a deep commitment to making the world better, this despite the fact, Ratner said, that “we certainly have many disagreements about what those problems are and how to fix them.”

However, Ratner and other Jewish leaders are troubled by Sokatch’s willingness to work with MPAC, which they consider a radical, anti-Israel organization.

Palestinian remarks generate cheer and gloom


Cheerful news reached us last week from Damascus. Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Meshal, told Reuters in an interview on Jan. 10 that Israel is a “matter of fact,” and that Hamas
might consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state is established.

Don’t misjudge me. I am not particularly thrilled with the content of Meshal’s statement, especially after learning that one hour later a Hamas spokesman denied any change in Hamas’ refusal to ever recognize Israel. What I do find refreshing, though, is that Reuters asked the question, dozens of linguists and analysts were busy interpreting the answer and news channels from China to Africa were eager to report the results.

What made me cheerful was seeing that the fundamental question of whether the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel, the key to any peace settlement in the region, is back on the table and can be discussed in good company without fear of dismissal or ridicule.

Let me explain. Five years ago, if you were to ask this question among Middle East analysts, you were sure to be scolded by an army of well-meaning conflict-resolution experts for being a spoiler of peace or ignorant of the latest polls from the West Bank.

“It does not matter what the Palestinians think about recognition or legitimacy,” was the standard answer, “what matters are conditions on the ground.”

“The road to peace is incremental,” repeated all the headlines.

Remember Peter Jennings, the legendary ABC News anchor? When he interviewed Hanan Ashrawi on his show and asked her about Israel’s right to exist, she hushed him with: “Chairman Arafat has recognized Israel in 1988,” and this kept poor Peter meek and timid for the rest of the interview.

When the Syrian Ambassador spoke at UCLA in 2005, and I asked him whether he personally recognizes Israel’s right to exist, my learned colleagues were quick to rebuke my question as impertinent — “What further proof would Israelis want to convince themselves of Arabs’ intentions?” they asked.

In other words, the question of Arab intentions, the mother of all questions and the key to all solutions, has been locked in the closet for 10 good years, and it is only Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election, together with financial sanctions by Israel and Western governments, that have brought it back to the spotlight it deserves. Moreover, now that Hamas is recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas’ official stance toward Israel has given Western observers a crisp and reliable thermometer to gauge the Palestinian vision of peace, many times more reliable than the ambiguous polls and speeches we have been reading about in the past.

The emergence of such a reliable thermometer now provides valuable new insights into Middle East affairs, especially for those who believe that honesty and clarity are prerequisites to peace. True, we owe this progress to Hamas, but we have never denied credit where credit is due.

However, before we gloat, I should note that my friends in Israel have been consistently skeptical of all polls and speeches since the outbreak of the second intifada, and they have paid no attention at all to those who debate whether Hamas truly represents the heart and mind of Palestinian society.

Most Israelis today have become resigned to some version of the “salami theory,” according to which the vast majority of Palestinians, Fatah and Hamas alike, will never accept Israel as a legitimate neighbor and no matter what agreement is signed, will continue their struggle to “liberate Palestine” in incremental stages (“shlavim” in Hebrew.)

The current fighting between Fatah and Hamas is viewed by most Israelis as a confrontation between two tactics aiming for the same goal, one calling for dismantling Israel in stages, using diplomacy, international isolation, demography, deceit and occasional terror and attacks, the other calling for open warfare.

This gloomy view, depressing as it is, rests on some hard evidence, which even moderate Palestinians have not been able to dispel. Aside from Arab’s century-long rejection of Jewish sovereignty on any part of Palestine, well funded Palestinian organizations have recently intensified their anti-Israel campaign in Europe and on U.S campuses, aiming not at ending the occupation but at undermining the legitimacy of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people.

Another indicator viewed with alarm by Israelis is that the subject of “comprehensive peace,” including hopes, images and responsibilities of state ownership, is not being discussed in the Palestinian street. While Palestinians do lay conditions for peace, they refrain from discussing its parameters, even behind closed doors.

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, is the only leader who dared remind his countrymen that compromises on the refugees “right of return” must be made if peace is to be given any chance at all. But all discussions of such compromises are considered taboo by the rest of Palestinian society, for whom “peace” has always meant a return to Jaffa, Haifa and Ramlah.

Finally, Palestinian intellectuals have been a great disappointment to Israeli peace activists. In an unprecedented candid exchange between two of the Middle East’s most respected journalists, Salameh Nematt, an Arab, and Akiva Eldar, an Israeli, Eldar writes (Ha’aretz, December 2006): “The Jewish minority, which calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from their land and steals their olives, is my enemy. I will do everything legally possible in order to protect my Arab neighbors from the obnoxious attacks of this racist minority.

“But Israelis need to know that Arabs who call for the expulsion of Jews from their [Jewish] land and deliberately murder their children are enemies of yours, and that there are many among you willing to defend my family against those who deny my right to a secure existence in my own country.”

Those familiar with Eldar’s record as a peace activist and a champion of Palestinians’ rights and statehood would appreciate his readers’ disappointment — after 30 years of intense outreach efforts, Eldar is still begging his Palestinian friends to acknowledge his “right to a secure existence in my own country.”

Enforce cease-fire terms for peaceful New Year


The Jewish people have a tradition of reflecting on the past as a tool to move forward. Never is this custom more significant than at the start of each New Year.

This Yom Kippur, we have a lot to bear in mind. At the end of summer a year ago, just before the beginning of 5766, Israel had faced what at the time seemed to be its most difficult summer with the disengagement from Gaza. A rift was created within Israeli society, one that the people of Israel were still dealing with until just before this summer began.

The thriving economy and booming tourist industry seemed a promising end to a trying year and hopeful beginning of the coming year. Unprecedented numbers of Hollywood celebrities were calling Tel Aviv their summer hotspot, and Israeli teens were trampling all over each other to buy tickets for some of the biggest acts in the world — performing in Israel.

School was out and summer camp was in. The pools had been properly chlorinated, and everyone was ready to show off their brand new bathing suits. For the kids all over Israel, this was the moment they’d been waiting for since September.

Following the deaths of 10 Israeli soldiers in two terrorist attacks, which resulted in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on June 25 as well as Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12, Israel set aside its summer plans and prepared to face once again what we have faced so many times in the past — war.

By mid-July the residents of northern Israel were being bombarded on a daily basis by deadly Katyusha missiles fired by Hezbollah. Innocent civilians were being targeted and killed. Hezbollah was exhibiting a new ruthlessness, placing ball bearings in the missile heads with the sole purpose of inflicting maximum injury and suffering on anyone within its reach of one mile.

Northern Israel took a harsh beating, bustling Israeli landmark cities like Haifa, Tzfat, Nahariya, Kiriyat Shmona and Tiberias were nearly deserted. Buildings were destroyed, the lush green landscape was in flames, and many lives were lost. With more than a third of Israel’s population in the line of fire, residents either fled south or huddled together in bomb shelters, transforming the animated north into a ghost town.

By the time a cease-fire was reached, 160 Israelis had been killed by Hezbollah terrorists. More than 4,000 missiles landed in Israel during the war, hitting 6,000 homes, leaving 300,000 Israeli’s displaced and forcing more than a million to live in bomb shelters.
Had the United Nations implemented Security Council Resolution 1559, the war would probably have been averted. Now, with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1701, the international community has been given a second chance to make things right.

Resolution 1701 brought an end to the military struggle, but while the bombs have stopped falling and the focus is to regroup and rebuild northern Israel, we must remain cautious and guarded.

The clear agenda of the president of Iran, a fundamentalist regime that gives financial support and operational directives to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, has not changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to sponsor terrorism and strives to achieve nuclear capabilities, while at the same time reiterating his call for the destruction of the Israel and denying the Holocaust.

Iran and Syria remain the driving force behind Hezbollah, a fact that strengthens the argument that the arms embargo addressed in Resolution 1701 must be enforced.
The culture of hatred that has grown strong in the unstable region surrounding Israel affects the Jewish people worldwide. Today, however, the Jewish people are stronger than they have ever been. That strength stems, among other things, from Eretz Israel, the one country in the world every Jew is free to call their home.

This summer, as Israel was under fire, the Jews of the world spoke together and stood together. It is well known that as Jews we band together in times of hardship. Never was that more true than during this past summer. Jews in Israel and around the world understood the stakes and made standing with Israel their first priority.

In accepting Resolution 1701, Israel has once again shown its commitment to peace by giving diplomacy a chance to succeed. It is now essential that this commitment to peace be echoed by the international community, starting first and foremost with the implementation of this important resolution.

As we continue the battle to free our abducted soldiers and secure our borders, Israel remains strong. Looking forward to a new year, we are strengthened by the lessons of our past. The Jewish people have overcome countless obstacles since the beginning of our history 5767 years ago, and we will continue to prevail against all odds and all enemies for a long time to come.

With this year ending and a new one beginning, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Jewish community for its undying support of Israel.

I pray that God continues to give us all the strength to face the many challenges that lie ahead.

I wish all of you a healthy, happy, peaceful New Year and may all of your hearts’ desires be fulfilled.

Am Yisrael Chai!

The people of Israel will live for eternity.

Chag Samech, Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova.

Ehud Danoch is Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.

New U.S. Stamps Honor Friends of Jews, Israel


On May 30, the United States Postal Service issued a series of new stamps honoring six career State Department diplomats who earned the gratitude of this nation for taking “risks to advance humanitarianism…[and] peace,” even if their actions put themselves “in harm’s way.”

Words of high praise — nonetheless inadequate in the case of honoree Hiram Bingham IV, who served as U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, France, during World War II. In 1940 and 1941 — against the official policies of the United States, which was steadfastly refusing to open Lady Liberty’s doors to persecuted European Jews — Bingham issued visas and false passports to Jews and other refugees, assisting in their escape. He even occasionally sheltered them in his home — risking not only his career but his life, as the Gestapo and SS operated freely in collaborationist Vichy France.

Bingham is credited with saving more than 2,500 people from deportation to death camps. Moreover, working together with fellow American hero journalist Varian Fry, he rescued such famous figures as artists Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Otto Meyerhoff, historian Hannah Arendt and authors Franz Werfel and Hans Habe.

As punishment for his continued defiance of Washington — and helping people the Roosevelt administration and the anti-immigrant WASP establishment that dominated the State Department was abandoning — Bingham was unceremoniously yanked out of France in 1941 and posted to Portugal and then Argentina. In 1945, he was forced to retire from the U.S. Foreign Service.

Although neither Fry nor Bingham received the credit due them in their lifetimes, Fry was eventually the first of the two to receive some measure of posthumous recognition, when in 1995, he became the first and only United States citizen to join Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler among the non-Jews designated as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Fry — also known as “the American Schindler” or “the artists’ Schindler” — was also accorded “Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel” in 1998. Finally, he achieved celebrity of sorts when Barbra Streisand co-produced the 2001 made-for-television movie, “Varian’s War,” starring William Hurt. (In that movie, Bingham is relegated to a mere footnote and even suffered the ignominy of having his named changed to “Harry.”)

Bingham rarely spoke of his wartime activities, concealing them even from his own family. Only after his death in 1988 (Fry died a young man in 1967) did his son discover letters, documents and photographs hidden behind a chimney in their home. The cache revealed Bingham’s struggle to save German and Jewish refugees from death — facts long suppressed by the United States government.

Belatedly, Bingham’s bravery was recognized by the United Nations in 2000 and, ultimately, by the American Foreign Service Association, which paid tribute to him with a special “courageous diplomat” award for “constructive dissent,” presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The eight-year campaign to issue a postage stamp in his honor met with success after gaining wide bipartisan support in Congress

Another stamp in this series honors Ambassador Philip C. Habib, a Lebanese Christian from Brooklyn who rose through the ranks of the foreign service to attain the posts of assistant secretary of state and undersecretary of state. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan called Habib out of retirement to serve as his special envoy to the Middle East at a time of growing tension between Israel and the PLO in southern Lebanon. When hostilities erupted into war engulfing Israel, Syria and Palestinian terrorists, Habib engaged in shuttle diplomacy and won the respect of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as he helped negotiate a truce. In 1982, Habib was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Habib deserves mention here because of his outspoken conviction that “the United States should support Israel. It’s a long-standing commitment, a commitment that goes through every administration since Truman, that we support the existence and security of Israel. Now, how, to what extent, on what terms at any given moment, those are subjects for discussion, debate, and reformulation. But the basic commitment is maintained.”

For more information, visit www.usps.com/communications/news/stamps/2006/sr06_036.htm

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethcial and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the University of Judaism. Bezalel Gordon is the former news director of the Israel Government Press Office and spokesperson for the Kahan Commission.