Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Iran, The Deal, And The Global System

Israelis overwhelmingly believe the Iran deal endangers them, but speak less about the world powers’ arrangements for Iranian nuclear facilities and more about Iran reaping an economic windfall – over $100 billion to increase regional mischief, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American-Jewish allies.

Even now, after the Senate failed to block the deal, AIPAC still insists that sanctions should have been increased along with military intimidation; that ambient economic pressures, causing suffering in the street and bazaar, would have inevitably forced the regime to capitulate. Implicitly, the deal’s opponents have depicted Iran’s economy as something like a drug cartel under a criminal kingpin that’s currently boxed-in by the cops – and as soon as the heat is off and profits roll in, the neighborhood will be doomed. (Netanyahu even suggested, colorfully, that Iranian officials could foil inspectors who ask to examine suspected sites the same way that drug dealers, if tipped off, could “flush a lot of meth down the toilet.”)

President Barack Obama has not said much to counter this image, except to insist that the Iranian government has tens of billions in infrastructural investments to make. In rallying Democratic legislators to support him, he has insisted that the deal’s safeguards will work. In fact, though, the president’s most important motive – and the reason he considers this a signature diplomatic victory – is something he can’t really talk about publicly: namely, the transformative power of Iran’s anticipated integration into the global system. Iran is a country with its own politics, including an election in February, and reformers like President Hassan Rohani are counting on commercial advances to put the wind at their back. In time, Iran’s emergence from economic isolation will almost certainly undermine the regime’s hard-liners and theocratic radicals, not strengthen them – and not because of what is unique to Iran but what is universal in the global economy.

Obama’s Iranian interlocutors, not only Rohani but the U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and leaders of a burgeoning Iranian civil society such as political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam, have been daringly frank about the deal working to their advantage. Zarif wrote in a New York Times column last April that his government’s desire to reduce regional tensions is “not due to habit or preference,” but because “globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete.” The assets of big global players used to be 20 percent knowledge and 80 percent stuff. That ratio is now reversed. As MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) put it recently, a commercially successful country must be a hub, not a fort.

Read on at Haaretz

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Chuck Schumer's Humilation

"You know, my name comes from the word shomer: guardian, watcher,” Senator Chuck Schumer told the host of a Jewish radio program in 2010. “My ancestors were guardians of the ghetto wall in Chortkov. And I believe Hashem actually gave me that name. One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be a shomer, to be the shomer Yisrael”—the guardian of Israel—“and I will continue to be that with every bone in my body.” Schumer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s efforts to rally Democratic opposition to President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal have now failed. On Tuesday, the support of Senators Richard Blumenthal, Ron Wyden, and Gary Peters assured Obama that any Republican resolution of disapproval would not even come up for a vote. But the extraordinary identity Schumer was claiming—to be a “guardian of Israel,” without apparent fear of being at odds with American foreign policy or the Democratic Party—may be the greater loss. It’s hard to see how AIPAC, and Schumer, come out of the Iran fight with the authority they had going in.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s story, which he is sticking to, is that Israel and AIPAC have won a moral victory. Dore Gold, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Israel’s Army Radio that Netanyahu never intended to keep the deal from being approved but rather to raise awareness about its perils. “Most of Congress is against the deal,” as is Isaac Herzog, who leads the opposition in the Knesset, Gold added. He then returned to the claims that Netanyahu made in his speech before Congress in March—that the deal was bad, that it endangered Israel—which might have been mistaken for an attempt to convince American legislators to reject it.

AIPAC’s influence was first advanced, in the nineteen-seventies, by hard-line Democratic senators like Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who felt that the State Department was controlled by Eisenhower-era Republicans who were too indebted to oil interests and not adequately sympathetic to Israel’s plight. Ever since AIPAC managed to coördinate the defeat of Republican Senator Charles Percy, in 1984 (Percy was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had argued that Jewish settlements preëmpt Palestinian rights), AIPAC has been able to present itself as a powerhouse, flush with money, focussed on Congress, and with strong claims on both Republican hawks and evangelicals and the Democratic center. Tom Dine and Steven Grossman, AIPAC leaders in the eighties and nineties, were Democratic operatives; Grossman went on to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Bill Clinton. President Obama courted AIPAC’s support in 2008, assuring attendees of its yearly conference that Jerusalem would be “undivided.”

Israel, in AIPAC’s playbook, is the best judge of its defense needs, a sister democracy, and, besides, a strategic asset in a volatile region. (It proved this for the first time in September, 1970, when Israeli jets helped protect the Jordanian monarch from a Palestinian insurgency and Syrian invasion.) Schumer’s opposition to the Iran deal was supposed to signal that AIPAC remained influential among Democratic principals and fund-raisers, and that the man who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2009, and is now the favorite to lead Senate Democrats when Harry Reid retires, could still fend off challenges to Israeli policy—if, for example, the U.N. Security Council were to vote on another resolution condemning West Bank settlements. The signal, meant to be cautionary, seems rather weak.

Even if, as some claim, Schumer came out against Obama only because he knew he could not muster the votes to override a Presidential veto, he surely expected to make a better showing. Now progressive groups like MoveOn have rallied Democratic insurgents to call Schumer’s prospective Senate leadership into question. AIPAC officials know that Netanyahu is to blame for emancipating Democrats from AIPAC’s embrace. “Netanyahu’s speech in Congress made the Iranian issue a partisan one,” an AIPAC official told Israel’s Walla!News. “As soon as he insisted on going ahead with this move, which was perceived as a Republican maneuver against the President, we lost a significant part of the Democratic Party, without which it was impossible to block the agreement.” AIPAC’s efforts to exploit Herzog’s opposition to the deal were almost as counterproductive, given that the deal has the support of Israeli Army and intelligence leaders, including Amos Yadlin, the man who Herzog said would have been his defense minister, had he defeated Netanyahu. As Channel Two’s veteran analyst Amnon Abramovitch told me, “Herzog’s effort to gain some reputation for ‘security’ and lean to the center is an understandable political move. But Iran is a subject that inevitably involves Israeli-American relations, and here Herzog got messed up.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Unremarkable Jewish Terror Underground

The NPR program, "Here and Now," looked into the Jewish terror underground yesterday and asked for some thoughts. Regular readers of this space will not be surprised by the line of questions--or my answers--but the dialogue produced ten interesting minutes. You can listen to the entire segment here. There is also an interesting piece on the subject by Ruth Margalit on The New Yorker site here

Friday, July 17, 2015

'The Trouble With Israel'

The following article, "The Trouble with Israel," is just out in the August Harper's. I try to make sense of things after the election and in anticipation of the Iran deal. (There is a pay-wall; but Harper's is well worth the 50 bucks a year.)

One day this April, two weeks after the Israeli elections gave Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister, the morning after the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran was worked out — the morning, as it happened, of the Passover seder — I dropped in at my local cheese shop, which is set back from the main street of Jerusalem’s German Colony. The neighborhood, once the heart of the city’s secular community of Hebrew University faculty and government workers, is now dense with yeshiva graduates wearing the signature knitted yarmulkes of the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and the affluent “modern Orthodox” from Toronto, Paris, and Teaneck, New Jersey. The clerk behind the counter — we’ll call him Shachar — the clever, chubby grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, whose eyes told you he thought he was meant for something better, had hooked me on truffle cheese some years ago, and we often had pleasant conversations when I came in for regular fixes. We did not normally talk politics, except for the occasional sigh over news of corruption or violence. (His grandfather, he had told me, had been a cadre in the Irgun, the militant Zionist underground group.) This time, however, he was buoyant, expectant. “Are you pleased with the election?” he asked me, using the Arabic colloquialism mabsoot for “pleased,” as casually as if he were asking whether Passover came in spring. 

“Are you out of your mind?” I erupted. “I feel shame for this country.”

Shachar stared at me, more surprised than wounded. I was taking advantage of him: I was his customer, after all. I shifted my tack toward patriotism. “Shachar, how can we be pleased? We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.” This gave Shachar his opening.

“No,” he replied, “the problem is with Obama. Experts say relations with America have never been better except for him. He doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with here. People on the left” — he meant me, but graciously kept away from the second person — “think they know better but never learn. My other customers from America say he is the worst president ever. Soon we’ll have missiles at Ben Gurion Airport.”

I stiffened my back and told Shachar what I thought of his government, his experts, and his other American customers. But even before I ended my disquisition, I thought: I am missing the point. One lesson the Israeli left has refused to learn is that elections are not so much a clash of arguments as an occasion for trafficking in fear. Shachar’s instincts were closer to primordial, and it was such instincts that determined the vote in Jerusalem, and much else in Israel. Netanyahu played on this fear by warning about “Arabs voting in droves” during the election’s closing hours — but Shachar’s real impulse was to find safety in affinity: the sense that things very nearby were dangerous, or could suddenly be made so; that understanding both sides of an argument weakens resolve; that believing in negotiations makes you unfit to conduct them.

Read on at Harper's Magazine

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Does Greece Need The Euro? Ask Israel.

"The Greek financial nightmare is a reminder of why countries benefit from having their own currencies,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post last Tuesday, before the government of Alexis Tsipras grudgingly accepted terms for another bailout. This was “a reminder,” presumably, because there was no need to debate something so axiomatic. “In the old days,” Ignatius continued, “a flexible drachma could have been devalued to boost exports and economic growth.” Economists from Martin Feldstein to Paul Krugman have proposed this cause and effect as a solution to Greece’s crisis since it began, in 2009. Krugman made the point forcefully in his column on Friday, lashing out at European and American austerity hawks and pointing to Canada’s devalued dollar as the reason for its recovery from the 2008 meltdown. “Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment,” Krugman wrote. “The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse.”

There can be no doubt that, in the case of Greece, critics of radical austerity have the better side of the argument. All agree that the Greek economy has to grow at an accelerating rate if the country is to have a chance of meeting a good part of its debt obligations, however generously they are restructured. Krugman notes that the national debt, which was roughly one and a quarter times G.D.P. in 2009, is, after austerity, one and three quarters times that today. Almost a million people, in a country of just over ten million, worked for the government in 2009. You could insist, as advocates of austerity have, that this was unsustainable, but throwing a third of those employees out of work, cutting remaining public-sector salaries by a third, and drastically reducing pensions, as advocates of austerity did, inevitably suppressed local demand. They could not have expected private-sector entrepreneurs to invest in consumer businesses, either. Creditor banks in Germany will almost certainly have to take some losses to get the Greek government’s ledgers back into balance.

The supercilious tone of northern European bankers regarding southern European profligacy makes austerity proponents’ arguments hard to take, too. To make German unification possible, East Germany effectively received a one-time infusion of three hundred and twenty-billion Deutsche marks, in the early nineties, the equivalent of almost two hundred billion dollars at the time, which included a deal that allowed East Germans to trade their own pathetic marks for West German Deutsche marks at par. It is true, as many European Union leaders have suggested, that there is the issue of precedent with Greece: the more the European Central Bank proves willing to transfer wealth to poor southern economies, the shakier the euro will become. Then again, if the euro were the currency of the richer northern European economies alone, or, for that matter, if a united Germany’s engineering-rich, high-export economy were still on the Deutsche mark, a Volkswagen Golf produced in Wolfsburg would be too expensive to sell competitively in either the U.S. or Asia, no matter how many robots were put on the line. The connection between the value of currencies and the capacity to export cuts both ways.

None of this means, however, that the euro and the free-trade eurozone are inherently bad for weaker economies like Greece’s. On the contrary, the counter-proposal of cheapening exports through devaluation presumes an economy that makes things the rest of the world wants. That’s Canada’s, but not Greece’s: the sun can only do so much. Aside from tourism, the Greek economy mainly rests on exporting refined petroleum and processed agricultural products while importing crude petroleum and everything from cars to computers. You can’t devalue the drachma to the point that gasoline production, or olive oil and cheese production, would generate sufficient earnings for Greek workers to pay for cars and computers. (That’s why so many Greek workers borrowed euros on easy credit to buy them.)

Read on at The New Yorker

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Did Obama 'Abandon Israel'?

Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, made news last week—as well he might, since he’s publishing a book. Yesterday marked the release of a memoir of his years representing Benjamin Netanyahu, which he summed up in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel.” The article included this pungent line: “While neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.” The leader in question, of course, is President Barack Obama. From the moment the President took office, Netanyahu’s envoy saw him as promoting “an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran.”

Oren doesn’t bother explaining what’s wrong with an American President pursuing an agenda of this kind. He insists, implausibly, that it “would have put him at odds with any Israeli leader.” He also doesn’t explain how a mistake can be made “deliberately,” which seems oxymoronic, something like a “planned accident.” But Oren’s formulation is no less quotable for being imprecise. It is obviously meant to achieve the same response as Mitt Romney’s statement that the President had “thrown allies like Israel under a bus.” For America’s “friends of Israel,” especially organized American Jews, putting “deliberately” and “abandoned” on the same page is enough. The juxtaposition bypasses the brain, going straight to the solar plexus.

Read on at The New Yorker

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Netanyahu Moves Against The Media

Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government last November to remove two obstacles. The first, much reported beyond Israel, was opposition by centrists within his government, including Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, to the “Jewish nation” bill, which would have constrained the Supreme Court’s ability to protect Arab citizens’ rights. The second—less noticed but perhaps more consequential—was a bill advanced in the Knesset to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed for free. The obvious target of the legislation was Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that’s become Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper. Adelson was reported to have lost as much as three million dollars a month on it—simply, it seems, to boost Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The day it became clear that the newspaper bill, supported by Lapid and Livni, would get a Knesset majority, Netanyahu fired his dissident ministers and called for new elections. Netanyahu won reëlection, and the legislation’s sponsors lost their leverage.

But the Prime Minister’s maneuvering for control of the news media did not end with the sinking of the bill. While forming his new government, he extracted written pledges from potential coalition partners not to vote against any legislative initiative or regulatory decision by the minister of communications, coyly implying that he might add the post to his responsibilities as Prime Minister—which he did. This role, and these pledges, position Netanyahu to regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio. His defense of Israel Hayom’s supremacy in print is trifling compared with his growing power to control greater Israel’s airwaves. “Netanyahu is like a pianist who’s gathered all the keys for a keyboard,” Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist who founded The Seventh Eye, an Israeli press-criticism magazine, told me. “Do we expect him not to play?”

Netanyahu’s most brazen decision as minister of communications has been the firing of the ministry’s director-general, Avi Berger, who had been preparing to reform the broadband market. The formerly government-owned telecommunications company Bezeq provides about two-thirds of home Internet access and almost all home Internet connections. Berger’s planned reform would have forced Bezeq to license its wired infrastructure to new entrants, bringing down the cost of Web access, much the way forcing Israel’s cell-phone cartel to share cellular infrastructure radically lowered the cost of mobile access. Berger also wanted all new companies to gain the right to bundle “last-mile” wiring with Internet service; Israeli customers now pay Bezeq to connect their modem to the fibre network, and also pay an Internet Service Provider, mostly likely Bezeq International, for access to the Web. Connectivity costs are about double what they are in the United States. Bezeq shareholders are not complaining. Netanyahu announced that he intends to replace Berger with Shlomo Filber, a close ally and a former chairman of the settlers’ council in the occupied territories. Broadband markets and neo-Zionist ideology may seem unrelated, but they are not. Berger’s firing was a signal that regulatory power can be used to engender broadcasting more or less friendly to Likud’s policies, not by directly intimidating journalists but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies.

Not surprisingly, Netanyahu’s move against Berger prompted an immediate spike in Bezeq’s share price; Netanyahu clearly meant to put Bezeq’s owners in his debt, or at least emphasize the value of being in his orbit. Not coincidentally, the Bezeq-owned Internet company Walla! has been rumored for months to be planning a twenty-four-hour cable news channel, bundled into Bezeq’s satellite-television provider Yes, and streamed and promoted over Bezeq infrastructure. “Berger’s sudden dismissal was immediately beneficial for Bezeq, of which Walla! is a subsidiary,” Erel Margalit, a Labor Knesset member and the founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, which has launched various media companies, complained. For Bezeq, Walla!, and its prospective cable news channel, “the conflict of interest is self-evident.”

Read on at The New Yorker