Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Five Norwegians and the Inventor of Dynamite

 A former colleague recently wrote to me:

“My family has been having a big debate about Trump’s work on these peace deals in the Middle East.  I mentioned that I was confident that you still don’t consider Trump a friend to Israel and would not be voting for him.  My siblings want to know why.  No matter what he does it doesn’t change who he is, which in my mind is a very bad man with no morals or ethics.

I was hoping you wouldn’t mind giving me some insight on these peace deals and if you still feel Trump is not a friend to Israel.  I thought maybe you would blog about that as well as Trump being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oh my gosh I can’t believe how divided our country is even in my own family.”

Here is my answer, with some additions and modifications:

I’ve sometimes wondered why so much prestige is attached to the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize awarded by a committee of five Norwegians, population 5.4 million, and named after a guy who invented dynamite and who donated money for a peace prize after reading a premature obituary that criticized him for making money as an arms dealer.

Not helping me feel warm and fuzzy about the award is the fact that the International Red Cross has won the award three times, including in 1944, in the midst of its arguably willing impotence in the face of the Holocaust and after its complicity in the whitewashing of the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

That recognition was arguably topped with awarding (and never revoking) the award to Yasser Arafat, the man who made modern terrorism successful and popular.

The final straw was granting the award to President Obama at the outset of his presidency.  Not that he did anything to tarnish the award.  The problem is that he hadn’t  yet done anything.  He had barely found the White House bathrooms when the call came.

It was somewhat similar to when my kids gave me a shirt proclaiming me “World’s Greatest Saba (Grandpa)” before my first grandchild was born.  It was on a whim and prayer.  But at least I had bounced some nephews and nieces on my knees, giving some hint that I might someday deserve the honor.  No prize money, however.

So when a far-right Norwegian parliament member nominated President Trump to receive the award, my response was a chuckle and a yawn.  Hey, why not?  It will be good for SNL and Colbert. 

 (To continue, https://www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com/2020/09/a-former-colleague-recently-wrote-to-me.html)   

Five Norwegians and the Inventor of Dynamite

 A former colleague recently wrote to me:

“My family has been having a big debate about Trump’s work on these peace deals in the Middle East.  I mentioned that I was confident that you still don’t consider Trump a friend to Israel and would not be voting for him.  My siblings want to know why.  No matter what he does it doesn’t change who he is, which in my mind is a very bad man with no morals or ethics.

I was hoping you wouldn’t mind giving me some insight on these peace deals and if you still feel Trump is not a friend to Israel.  I thought maybe you would blog about that as well as Trump being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oh my gosh I can’t believe how divided our country is even in my own family.”

Here is my answer, with some additions and modifications:

I’ve sometimes wondered why so much prestige is attached to the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize awarded by a committee of five Norwegians, population 5.4 million, and named after a guy who invented dynamite and who donated money for a peace prize after reading a premature obituary that criticized him for making money as an arms dealer.

Not helping me feel warm and fuzzy about the award is the fact that the International Red Cross has won the award three times, including in 1944, in the midst of its arguably willing impotence in the face of the Holocaust and after its complicity in the whitewashing of the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

That recognition was arguably topped with awarding (and never revoking) the award to Yasser Arafat, the man who made modern terrorism successful and popular.

The final straw was granting the award to President Obama at the outset of his presidency.  Not that he did anything to tarnish the award.  The problem is that he hadn’t  yet done anything.  He had barely found the White House bathrooms when the call came.

It was somewhat similar to when my kids gave me a shirt proclaiming me “World’s Greatest Saba (Grandpa)” before my first grandchild was born.  It was on a whim and prayer.  But at least I had bounced some nephews and nieces on my knees, giving some hint that I might someday deserve the honor.  No prize money, however.

So when a far-right Norwegian parliament member nominated President Trump to receive the award, my response was a chuckle and a yawn.  Hey, why not?  It will be good for SNL and Colbert. 

 (To continue, https://www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com/2020/09/a-former-colleague-recently-wrote-to-me.html)   

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Boots On The Ground

It’s time for Americans and, in particular, American Jews, to be very alarmed about the state of American democracy.

Yes, I am an alarmist. However, we will never know how many bad things have been thwarted by sounding the alarm and taking action. Alarmists always look like, well, alarmists, if they are effective.

Many democracies do not become stunted or destroyed by revolutions, violent or peaceful. Many destroyed democracies are the result of incremental steps, the drip. . .drip. . .drip. . .and then knee-deep water.

Many dictatorships or near-dictatorships or quasi-democracies maintain the trappings and look of a democracy—legislatures, distinguished-looking, robe-wearing judges, a “free” but cowered or kowtowing press, etc. etc.

The U.S. has been experiencing the dripping destruction of major democratic norms for several years now.

The hallmarks have occurred largely in public view. The targeting of minorities and immigrants. The personal demonization of opponents. The firing of independent inspectors charged with exposing unethical and illegal conduct.

The dismissal and perp walk of loyal citizens who have provided testimony under oath, and the punishment of a family member (in this case, coincidentally but poignantly, two immigrants and two Jews among the targets). Commuting prison sentences for those who protect you by withholding testimony or by lying.

Members of Congress ceding traditional powers of inquiry and authority that prior generations of legislators would have guarded and utilized with enthusiasm. Congressional members and other leaders, educated and seemingly thoughtful people, rationalizing, denying, diverting.

Anne Applebaum, has spent most of her career exploring why most people go along with left-wing dictators (her book Iron Curtain, The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, is a masterpiece). She recently wrote an insightful and haunting essay in The Atlantic about why Republican leaders have abandoned their principles.

Others have recently written about the demise or death of democracies. The tell-tale signs are vividly on the American landscape today. There is no camouflage.

But just this last week the dripping changed.  Democracy, if not drowning, is choking and grasping for air. What is it that set off the alarms for this alarmist?

Portland, Oregon. Unidentified, camouflaged, fully-armed, battle-ready federal officers, there against the wishes of local officials and the Governor, pulling people off the streets and throwing them into unidentified vehicles, ostensibly “for questioning.”

It is irrelevant whether or not the “interviewees” were guilty of an offense or not. It is even irrelevant whether they were violent or not. It is irrelevant whether these people hold the most obnoxious, even dangerous, political views, or that I likely would not like these protestors or their politics or tactics.

The oft-quoted Martin Niemoller put it eloquently: “First they came for the. . . .And by that time no one was left to speak for me.”

It turns out that the unidentified, fully-armed, camouflaged federal officers are employees of the Customs and Border Protection of the Department of Homeland Security, leading Applebaum to question on Twitter what they were doing there.

Plain and simple, this is not, or was not, how “policing” is done in America. In fact, this is not policing. It is the tool of intimidation and suppression and repression of dictatorships, of fascists and would-be fascists.

I generally reject comparisons to the Holocaust, which was unique in its horror and its targeting of one people for complete annihilation. But, sadly and frighteningly, unidentified state actors acting like hoods as they throw people into unmarked vehicles should strike a chord with anyone familiar with the behavior of Nazis in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.

For Jews, this shouldn’t be a drip. It should be a flood.  For conservatives, the sight of the federal government, over local objections, extending its long and unidentified hands, should be repugnant.

But “Trump is the best president for Israel we’ve ever had,” say about 20 or 25% of American Jews. I have long said that we should acknowledge and express appreciation when President Trump does something we like, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  However, one can argue the real-life benefits for the average Israeli of such actions against the real-life costs of America’s withdrawal from the world, of an inconsistent and sometimes incoherent foreign policy, and of greenlighting of further Russian involvement in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

What Israel needs more than any particular American position is an America that is strong, respected, healthy, united, unabashedly supportive of democracies, and persuasive to other countries. Sadly, that clearly is not the United States of America under President Trump.
In short, Americans, alarmist or not, should be very, very alarmed. Jews who know their history should be at the forefront of the alarmists. The drip. . .drip. . .drip of a democracy under jeopardy has become a torrent.

                                           ------------------------------------------------

It is ironic that this latest assault on America’s democratic norms should come at the same time as Congressman John Lewis’ death. Lewis was one of the great champions of human rights and civil rights, as well as a great believer in friendship and connection between Jews and African-Americans. When asked why he refused to participate in Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995, he reportedly said that Farrakhan’s statements were “divisive and bigoted” and that he, Lewis, “followed his conscience, not his complexion.”

                                              ---------------------------------------------

It is unfortunately telling that the Trump Administration’s use of the tactics of dictatorial regimes should come at the same time that Secretary of State Pompeo asserts that the United States should limit the human rights it advocates for on the international stage.

(Originally published in the Times of Israel)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Uncomfortable Times for American Zionists



As one of the 75% of Israelis who do not support unilateral annexation,  I share the concern expressed by many American supporters who oppose annexation.  But where Israelis and many American Jewish Zionists seem to part ways is basing their perception of and connection with Israel based solely on annexation and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
There is no question that annexation, or the extension of sovereignty, is a very serious step to be taken unilaterally, with potential consequences for Israel’s security, demographics, diplomatic relations, democracy, and future as a Jewish state. However, there are credible voices that argue that, given the Palestinians’ long-time rejection of various proposals, and their inability to unify into one government, it is time to upset the apple cart and create our own future, whatever that may be.
Einat Wilf, a former member of the Knesset from the Labor Party, argues that Israel is in the final stages of the long process of establishing its borders and, while the road may get a bit bumpy, the sky is not falling.
One of the challenges is that, for as crucial an issue as annexation is, all but Prime Minister Netanyahu and perhaps a few other people know what it will amount to.  Are we debating annexing the Jordan Valley and every community and settlement in Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank) as imagined in the Trump proposal as the starting point for negotiations that would also include a Palestinian state?
Or are we debating a couple of suburban neighborhoods contiguous or nearly contiguous to Jerusalem? Or are we talking about establishing the Jordan Valley as our security border?
It is a serious subject with much different ramifications depending upon what is actually done.  And, yet, we will apparently not know exactly what it is until just before or after it has gone through a tortured negotiation process with the Trump Administration and Netanyahu’s coalition partners and, of course, through Netanyahu’s political calculations.
For a facts and figures on what likely scenarios would entail, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East policy provides a some very good outlines of how territory and people would be impacted.
American supporters of Israel are rightly confused and concerned.  So are many Israelis.  But where Israelis and many American supporters of Israel part company is seeing this issue as the end-all and be-all of Israel.
(continue at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com)

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Smart Israelis/Smart Palestinians

There is no doubt that both historically and legally Jews have every right to live in and to call home every inch of the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.  As Yossi Klein Halevi explained in his latest book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, Jews have ancient and deep roots in all of the Land of Israel.

In modern times our rights to a state were recognized by both powers that controlled the region and relevant international bodies.  A decent argument can even be made that Jews have the right to have had included in the state of Israel land east of the Jordan River that a younger Winston Churchill and his colonial colleagues lopped off from what was then called Southern Syria or Palestine and handed to the current King Abdullah's great-grandfather, Abdullah I.  

Abdullah's family, the Hashemites, ruled Mecca for 700 years and, as the Saudis were taking over Mecca, the Brits apparently thought, "hey, why not," the Hashemites can have part of Palestine or, as it was re-named, trans-Jordan.  King Abdullah and the Hashemites have about as much right being there as I have performing neurosurgery.  

But, for a myriad of strategic, political, military, demographic, and moral reasons, most Zionists have not pressed the Jewish people's legitimate claims to trans-Jordan for about 100 years.  It was not in our interest. We used our heads.

There is also no doubt that of all the peoples in the world aspiring to nationhood, the Palestinian people, under some of the most inept, corrupt leadership imaginable, have not earned their way to the top of the list.  Given opportunity after opportunity, with unprecedented financial and political support, they have opted not to develop the institutions and norms for success as a modern nation.

Among other things, they have not developed in an independent judiciary.  Their press is far from free. Journalists are attacked and jailed for not towing the party line.

They have not established a free and fair electoral system.  The most blatant illustration of that is 85-year-old President Abbas, who was elected to his four-year term 15 years ago.  Virtually no one expects a peaceful transfer of power when he dies.

The competing Palestinian governing entities, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have not resolved the national divisions between their two major ideological camps, and they do not seem able to do so peacefully.  In a bloody coup in 2007, Hamas took over Gaza.  It controls it today, and it priorities terrorizing Israel and maintaining power over improving the lives of the inhabitants.  Every attempt at peacefully reconciling and uniting Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has gone nowhere.
(continue at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Do the right thing

I felt compelled to write a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  And, no, I am not holding my breath.

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

In the 50 years that I have been a pro-Israel activist, and in the decade since I made Aliyah, I have never felt such a feeling of despair and shame.  Not about Israel and its people and promise, but about its leadership and politics.  I fear for the Zionist enterprise.

I have not always agreed with every policy or statement of the Israeli government and its political leaders.  But I have always been able to explain policies, put them in context, and demonstrate that they are part of the give-and-take of a robust Israeli democracy.

No longer.  I cannot explain how the Israeli democracy has a Prime Minister charged with serious crimes involving breach of trust and bribery, nor how he does not feel compelled to resign for the sake of the country.  It is difficult if not impossible to find any healthy democracy where this has happened.

You are, of course, entitled to a presumption of innocence and to a strong and full defense.  Part of that would be an aggressive counter-argument to the prosecution’s case.  However, to remain in office and to attack the judiciary and your opponents and to encourage the behavior of your allies in the manner you have undermines Israel’s democratic foundations.

I am ashamed of what you and some of your allies are doing.  I cannot defend or explain your actions.  You and your allies falsely and maliciously assert that the investigation and prosecution amount to an “attempted coup.”  You and your allies falsely and maliciously allege some vast conspiracy consisting of the media, the “left,” the police, the investigators, and the prosecution that is out to get you.

Incredibly, you allege that an Attorney General and police leaders that you appointed are part of this fantastic vast conspiracy.  Undoubtedly with your orchestration, some of your ministers and others beholden to you show up at your first Court hearing attacking the proceedings and those responsible for enforcing the law, questioning their legitimacy and thereby undermining faith in Israel’s legal and judicial processes and institutions.

Law enforcement and prosecution personnel have been viciously attacked and threatened.  The word “traitor” has been thrown around. They now require extraordinary security, and they undoubtedly and legitimately fear for their safety and that of their families.  Attacks on the judges involved have already begun.  If the judges rule against you, one can only imagine the attacks you and your allies will engage in.

On many occasions I have heard you boast about the strong, independent, honest Israeli judiciary.  You have heralded it as evidence of Israel’s democracy.  How do you explain your years of these assertions in light of your current attacks?  Were you lying then or are you lying now? Or did the corruption of these great institutions happen just in time to come after you?

I have also proudly held Israel’s judiciary out as one of its great democratic pillars, as have many of Israel’s strongest advocates.  How will any of us do so after the Prime Minister and many of his allies have spent months, probably years, tearing into that judiciary?

Prime Minister Menachem Begin chose not to annex Judea and Samaria.  He clearly refrained from doing so not out of fear of the reaction of any foreign country or person, including the President of the U.S.  If he held such fears, he would not have extended sovereignty over Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who voted against the Camp David Accords and never feared defying anyone, including U.S. Presidents, also chose not to annex the territories.  Same with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also feared no one and nothing.

And same with you, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.  You have had over a decade to annex Judea and Samaria, but you never did it.  The former Prime Ministers and you all knew the costs of unilaterally asserting sovereignty over substantial parts of the territories and effectively having jurisdiction over two or two-and-a- half million Palestinians: combined with the number of Israel’s Arab population, it places Israel’s Jewish identity in serious jeopardy.

It threatens the entire Zionist purpose.  You know that and you knew better than to do that.  And so you did not do it.  Until now.

In order to please your base, to consolidate your power, to ensure that you stay in office and out of jail, you are now willing to take this step and jeopardize Israel’s Jewish identity, the bi-partisan support of its crucial ally, its peace treaty with a country that provides an essential buffer, and more.

For nothing:  Israel already effectively controls the area.

Your family has given much to Israel and Zionism.  You have much to be proud of.  Your father was one of its great intellectuals.  Your brother gave his life in one of Israel’s greatest military feats.  He is a legend.  You served bravely in a storied unit, risking your life and suffering wounds.  You put Israel on its path to economic success, and you kept Israel safe and economically vibrant for over a decade as Prime Minister.

But what you, and what your allies are doing for you now, to allow you to stay in office and to escape the same justice system every other citizen is subject to, will tarnish your and your family’s legacy.  It will overwhelm all that you and they have done.  It will define you in history, and it may very well contribute to the destruction of Israel’s democracy and Jewish identity.

I implore you to do what is right: put your country and your family’s legacy first.  Resign.

Respectfully,

Alan Edelstein
Jerusalem

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Monday, May 18, 2020

We Beat Italy


After 18 months, three elections, myriad negotiation sessions, party splits, realignments, name calling, fear mongering, flirting, ministry-creating, and lots more that now seems de rigueur in Israel coalition-making, Israel has a government. Or, perhaps more accurately, two parallel governments, or one government with another in waiting.

There is the old saying: If you like law or sausage, don't watch how either is made. In this case, sausage is due an apology.

The intricacies of this deal make Rubik's Cube look simple. Indeed, this mishmash would confound Mr. Rubick himself. The agreement, negotiated by two candidates that have absolutely no trust in the other, creates some of the strangest governance provisions one could imagine.

The Israeli High Court of Justice held two days of hearings on eight petitions hearing challenges on the right of a Knesset member under indictment to form a government, as well as on the complex and convoluted coalition agreement between indicted Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and former Opposition Leader and now "alternative" Prime Minister-to-be Benny Gantz.

The Court ruled that Netanyahu could be designated to form a government. It largely avoided ruling on the agreement, putting that off until the provisions enshrining the agreement in law were enacted. Those challenges should be coming soon. The Court did make some pointed criticisms of some of the provisions that would have required the most glaring revisions of law and process. The would-be coalition partners thereupon made some overnight revisions.

The High Court was damned if it did and damned if it didn't. If it ruled that Netanyahu could not be tapped to put a government together, or that substantial parts of the coalition agreement violated Israel's Basic Laws, which pass for a kind-of Constitution, it would have been accused of being a liberal, activist court that was thwarting the will of the voters and of undermining democracy.

Thanks at least in part to the coronavirus crisis and his leadership of Israel's positive response to it, and perhaps also a symptom of Israelis' election fatigue and their dread of going through a fourth campaign, Netanyahu's polling numbers are up. Polls indicated that notwithstanding indictments and other Netanyahu baggage, Likud would have won about 40 seats in new elections, a gain of about seven or eight seats.

continue at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com