Dilemma of pro-Israel groups: To talk Egypt or not?

As Egypt convulses, pro-Israel groups and U.S. Congress members are seized by the ancient maternal dilemma: If you have nothing nice to say, should you say anything at all?

The question of whether to stake a claim in the protests against 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy is a key one for the pro-Israel lobby and pro-Israel lawmakers because of the role they have played in making Egypt one of the greatest beneficiaries of U.S. aid.

And in the same way that the outcome in Egypt continues to idle in the gear of “anyone’s guess,” there is little consensus in the byways of pro-Israel Washington over how to treat the nation and its nascent revolution.

The competing claims were evident in the divergent, and at times contrasting, calls issuing from figures known for their closeness to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the trendsetter in the pro-Israel community. In general, reactions to the unrest in Egypt crossed political lines, with some liberal and conservative commentators pressing the Obama administration to help topple the regime, and others stressing the need for stability.

Some AIPAC-related called for assistance to Egypt to be contingent on whether the emerging government remained committed to cooperation with Israel. Others were emphatic in omitting Israel as a consideration, saying it was not the place of Israel or its friends to intervene in what appears to be an organic shucking-off of a dictator.

Josh Block, AIPAC’s former spokesman who is still close to the lobby, said the commitment of whatever government emerges to peace with Israel should be a critical element in considering whether to continue the $1.5 billion Egypt receives in aid, much of it in defense assistance.

“Given what’s taking place, it’s appropriate for the U.S. government to be reviewing U.S. aid to Egypt,” said Block, now a senior fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute and principal at the consulting firm Davis-Block. “No matter what happens, clearly one of the top criteria Congress is likely to use is Egypt’s approach to its peace treaty obligations with Israel.”

That seemed to be the tack adopted by U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. She framed her statement in the context of the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel, which is the basis for Egypt’s status as one of the top recipients of U.S. aid.

“Ever since the historic Camp David peace accords more than 30 years ago, Egypt and the United States have been partners in seeking a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said. “It is in the interest of the United States and regional stability that this period of turmoil and uncertainty be resolved peacefully and that Egypt remain a strong ally.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took that posture further, saying in a statement that U.S. assistance should be contingent on an election that allows only parties that recognize Egypt’s “peace agreement with the Jewish State of Israel.”

Such cautions are fueled by fears of the role the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood might play in a new Egypt. Other pro-Israel lawmakers notably omitted reference to the peace with Israel in their statements.

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Middle East subcommittee, called for a suspension of assistance to Egypt until Mubarak left—and then its renewal once a transitional government was in place, whatever its makeup.

“I believe the United States must suspend its assistance to Egypt until this transition is under way,” said the statement from Ackerman, who is Jewish and a pro-Israel stalwart.

In an interview, Ackerman said the omission of an Israel reference was deliberate.

“I understand the angst and anxiety that exists in Israel, but we’re not going to pick the next leader of Egypt,” he said.

Instead, Ackerman said, the United States should use what he said was a closing window of opportunity, and side pronouncedly with the people and against Mubarak.

“If we sign the people of Egypt up as lobbyists, they will do the right thing,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who is also Jewish and the ranking member on the Foreign Affairs committee and the author of last year’s sweeping Iran sanctions law, also kept Israel out of his statement. Unlike Ackerman, however, he said assistance should continue as a means of stabilizing the Egyptian military.

“So long as the Egyptian military plays a constructive role in bringing about a democratic transition, the United States should also remain committed to our ongoing assistance programs for Egypt, both military and civilian,” he said.

Betting on the military was perhaps the only certainty in the current chaos, said David Schenker, an Egypt expert at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank The Egyptian army is popular among Egyptians and, unlike the hated police, has taken steps during the uprising not to alienate the street.

“The arbitrator of this may be the military,” Schenker said. “It doesn’t want to cede power to a civilian power that’s Islamist. The army has entrenched interests with this regime and likes very much its relations with the U.S. military.”

Egypt’s potential collapse triggered an intense “who’s to blame” debate in Washington over which party or group had done more to prop up Mubarak’s regime. One emerging theme was that more should have been done to use aid as leverage to nudge Mubarak toward democratization.

Pro-Israel congressional insiders said there had always been talk throughout the years of shifting funds from defense aid to democratization assistance, at times from unlikely bedfellows: Ros-Lehtinen and the Zionist Organization of America had backed such a shift, but so had the former Appropriations chairman, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a frequent Israel critic.

Such initiatives were abandoned, the insiders said, both in Congress and in the Bush White House after Hamas won elections in the Gaza Strip.

In a hearing on Egypt assistance in May 2006, just after the Hamas victory, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), the lawmaker who is perhaps closest to Israel, made this aside: “I am wondering if I need a change in the way I think about the Middle East and about democratizing nations that are no more ready for democracy than the man on the moon.”

The remark made headlines in Egypt.

Now some pro-Israel voices are saying that not pushing for democracy has disastrous consequences—including critics of the regime. For example, the ZOA, which has frequently accused the Egyptian government of undermining peace and pressed for a reduction in U.S. military aid, now is calling for the Obama administration to do everything it can to keep the regime in place, with Mubarak or one of his associates in charge.

Obama “should be showing some loyalty to a regime with which we have had good relations for 30 years,” ZOA President Mort Klein said. “If we have elections in the near future, you’re going to have a result like in Gaza. Of course I want democracy, but I don’t want democracy when the results support Islamic takeover.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the Yeshiva World News that the United States should have been working more proactively to ensure an orderly transition to democracy.

“This is something that we knew was coming—we should have been working at it all along,” Hoenlein said, adding that the Bush administration had paid lip service to the notion of building democratic institutions and the Obama administration not even that.

Hoenlein warned against the emergence in Egypt of possible transition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, saying he covered up Iran’s true nuclear weaponization capacities while he directed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“He is a stooge of Iran, and I don’t use the term lightly,” Hoenlein said. “He fronted for them, he distorted the reports.”

ElBaradei, who directed the IAEA from 1997 to 2009, returned to Egypt following his third term. Soon he was touted as a possible challenger to Mubarak’s autocractic reign and has emerged during the protests as a consensus figure.

During his term as IAEA chief, ElBaradei said Iran was further away from a nuclear weapon than many in the West claimed and castigated Western powers, including Israel, for suggesting that a military option against Iran was increasingly possible. He made it clear in those statements that his posture stemmed from the U.S. failure to heed warnings from him and other weapons experts that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons capacity.

ElBaradei also has been cool to Israel, however, and has infuriated Israel’s military establishment by saying that Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal undercuts efforts to keep Iran and other countries from going nuclear.

In an interview with The Washington Post just before he retired, he said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not want to get rid of Israel, but to replace it with a non-Jewish state—two concepts Israelis and pro-Israel groups see as synonymous.

Hoenlein was not alone. Reporters were bombarded this week by e-mail from pro-Israel groups with ElBaradei quotes that appeared hostile to the United States. In some cases, however, the quotes were taken out of context and questionably sourced.

Keith Weissman, a former AIPAC lobbyist and analyst who witnessed the Iranian Revolution unfold and who has lived in Egypt, said the warnings about ElBaradei were overheated.

“From what I see in Cairo there is no evidence he is on an Iranian agenda,” he said

Weissman said tThe inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition alliance ElBaradei is leading should not be a cause for concern.

“In a post-Mubarak Egypt, you’d want the Brothehood close,” he said.

In any case, meddling is counterproductive, said Lara Friedman, the legislative director for Americans for Peace Now, writing in an op-ed for JTA.

“Denying the reality of change in Egypt does not help Israel; it only guarantees that Israel’s future relationship with Egypt will be more difficult,” she said.

Poll: Most Palestinians support direct negotiations with Israel

A poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza conducted last month by a research firm for the Israel Project, a nonprofit education organization, found that a majority of Palestinians support direct peace negotiations with Israel and a two-state solution to the conflict.

Only 30 percent of those surveyed believe that the two-state solution should be permanent. Sixty percent said that establishing Jewish and Palestinian states side by side should be temporary, with the ultimate goal being the establishment of a single Palestinian state. Only one-fifth accepted that Israel has “a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people.”

The survey, conducted in early October by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a firm based in Washington, D.C., interviewed 854 people face-to-face in the West Bank and Gaza. Questions were asked in Arabic, and different formulations of similar questions often led to seemingly contradictory results. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they favored direct negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet 58 percent agreed with the statement “this is a time for armed struggle,” with only 36 percent choosing the other alternative, “this is the time for engagement with Israel.”

The mixed results present a nuanced picture of Palestinian public opinion. “It offers a special window into Palestinian thinking at this critical juncture.  There are some things to applaud, some to note and some things that are concerning,” Stan Greenberg, the research firm’s chairman and CEO, said in a press release.

When pollsters described what a peaceful resolution might entail—including land swaps and the division of Jerusalem as laid out by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000—respondents were less enthusiastic about the prospects of an agreement, with only 29 percent supporting such a solution.

But Palestinian support for “recognizing Israel as Jewish state” went up significantly—to 50 percent—when pollsters added in two preconditions: building up Palestinian institutions and moving toward an agreement on borders.

“The hostility and misconception towards Israel and Jews among our neighbors shows the urgent need of direct communication between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Marcus Sheff, Israel director of The Israel Project, the non-profit educational organization that sponsored the survey. “In order to change the perceptions we must work with the Palestinian and Arabic media.”

GOP will ‘check’ Obama, Cantor tells Netanyahu

The new GOP majority will “serve as a check” on the Obama administration, Republican leader Eric Cantor told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu met Wednesday night with Cantor (R-Va.), the putative U.S. House of Representatives majority leader whose party swept midterm elections last week for the House. Their meeting was first reported on the Politico website.

Such meetings with opposition leaders are unusual, and Cantor’s office cast it as a get-together between two men with a longstanding relationship.

Nonetheless, Cantor’s statement was critical of the Obama administration, siding with Netanyahu in a number of areas where the prime minister and President Obama have differences.

The statement called on Obama to “fully and aggressively implement” Iran sanctions and to “make it absolutely clear that the U.S. will veto any effort by the Palestinians” to declare a state unilaterally. Cantor told Netanyahu, the statement added, that “the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one-party rule in Washington.”

Although Obama has not used the full sanctions package, he has implemented Iran sanctions to a greater extent than any of his predecessors.

Cantor was deputy Republican whip from 2003 to 2007, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and the Bush administration considerably softened proposed Iran sanctions packages.

Obama also has made it clear that he opposes unilateral moves in the peace talks, although he has not explicitly threatened to veto Palestinian statehood should it come under consideration by the U.N. Security Council.

Netanyahu also met Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said that an announcement this week of more than 1,000 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem is “counterproductive.”

“I’m very pleased to be here and to have this opportunity to discuss with him how we’re going to move forward in the process,” Clinton said prior to the meeting.

Netanyahu also met with Vice President Joe Biden during his U.S. visit, and with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), whom he has known since the early 1980s.

Jane Fonda responds to Toronto backlash

Follow our complete coverage of the Toronto Film Festival boycotts on our Hollywood Jew blog.

Reposted with permission of Jane Fonda

I recently signed a letter protesting the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to showcase and celebrate Tel Aviv. This in the very year when Gaza happened. The decision made the festival a participant in the newly launched campaign to “rebrand” Israel. Arye Mekel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director General for Cultural Affairs, has said that artists and writers must be enlisted in order to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” The protesters felt it was wrong for the much-respected festival to be used in this manner. The role of art, after all, is not to prettify but to expose reality with all its contradictions and complexities.

I signed the letter without reading it carefully enough, without asking myself if some of the wording wouldn’t exacerbate the situation rather than bring about constructive dialogue.

Last week, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles, explained to me the meaning of the Hebrew word “teshuva”—to fix things you have done incorrectly, not just by never doing them again but by “coming with a sincere heart. Words that come from the heart enter the heart.”

Some of the words in the protest letter did not come from my heart, words that are unnecessarily inflammatory: The simplistic depiction of Tel Aviv as a city “built on destroyed Palestinian villages,” for instance, and the omission of any mention of Hamas’s 8-month-long rocket and mortar attacks on the town of Sderot and the western Negev to which Israel was responding when it launched its war on Gaza. Many citizens now suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. In the hyper-sensitized reality of the region in which any criticism of Israel is swiftly and often unfairly branded as anti-Semitic, it can become counterproductive to inflame rather than explain and this means to hear the narratives of both sides, to articulate the suffering on both sides, not just the Palestinians. By neglecting to do this the letter allowed good people to close their ears and their hearts.

Additionally, protesting the use of the festival to “rebrand” Israel was perhaps too easily misunderstood. It certainly has been wildly distorted. Contrary to the lies that have been circulated, the protest letter was not demonizing Israeli films and filmmakers. On one of the many trips I have made to Israel, I spoke at Tel Aviv University’s film department and am well aware, as I’m sure the other signatories are, that Israeli films are not a mouthpiece for their government’s policies. Nor was the letter an attack on the legitimacy of Tel Aviv as an Israeli city, or a call to boycott the Toronto Film Festival. In fact, many signatories are attending the festival and have films showing there.

As I said in my recent blog, the greatest “re-branding” of Israel would be to celebrate that country’s long standing, courageous and robust peace movement by helping to end the blockade of Gaza through negotiations with all parties to the conflict, and by stopping the expansion of West Bank settlements. That’s the way to show Israel’s commitment to peace, not a PR campaign. There will be no two-state solution unless this happens.

The Israeli-Palestinian story cannot be reduced to a simplistic aggressor-victim relationship. In order to fully understand this, one must be willing to come together with an open heart and really hear the narratives of both sides. One narrative sees 1948 as the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their land. Another sees it as the birth of a nation. Conceivably it was both. Neither narrative can be erased, both must be heard.

This post originally appeared on HuffingtonPost.com.