Saturday, March 27, 2010


I was a Barack Obama fan from the moment I heard him deliver the Keynote at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Yet when I heard that he was thinking of running for President a couple of years later, my initial reaction was that it might be a tad premature. His talent as a politician was apparent, and in that regard, he towered over the opposition. But he clearly lacked experience. In fact, other than running for office, he lacked accomplishments. From my own life, I knew that accomplishments don’t just materialize from thin air – they come after a process of mini-failures and successes that teach us where our instincts fail us every bit as much as they teach us about our strengths. Barack Obama hadn’t experienced those failures. He hadn’t taken many risks at all. He taught himself rhetoric, studied up on policy, and tried to get along with as many legislators as possible. But he never took on a controversial cause to the extent that he risked his reputation in the process. In that sense, he resembled more a politician-in-training than he did a true statesman. So, I predicted, if he did win the Presidency, we could expect him to struggle for 1 ½ years or so before he finds his way, and that troubled me, since I viewed him as so far and away superior to the other potential Presidents that I wanted him at his best for a full eight years.

Clearly, for most of the past 14 months, Barack Obama has not been a particularly skilled President – nowhere nearly as skilled as he was a candidate. When it comes to leadership, he has been AWOL. Indeed, he has come across as overly calculated, sheepish, and lacking of vision. At times, he has even given the impression that he took the job more for the parties you get to throw than for the causes you get to confront. And when the Republican bullies threw mud in his face, his instinct appeared to involve flight just as much as fight.

But then something happened: he lost an election. A year after his blissful inauguration, he had the pleasure of sitting in his easy chair in the White House and watching as the seat of his friend and mentor, Ted Kennedy, was given to a health care reform-bashing upstart Republican. As wake-up calls go, that was a gem. No sooner did Scott Brown become the Junior Senator from Massachusetts than some of Barack’s fellow Senators began to panic about the future of health care reform. Some called for desperate attempts to pass it overnight before the Democrats lost their Super Majority in the Senate. Others threw up their hands, talked about health care reform being dead in the water, and seemed reconciled to three years of some sort of weak, “unity” Government that the Democrats would run de jure and the Republicans would run de facto. As for Barack, he appeared to take the Brown defeat as a sign that it was time to change his approach. “Barack Obama President” was obviously a failure, so he needed to get to something that he knew how to do well. That led to the resurgence of “Barack Obama Candidate.” Soon, the country was treated to speech after speech, rally after rally, and smile after smile. Gone was the characteristic fecklessness of Barack’s first year in office and in its place was an incredible resolve. As a candidate, Barack resembles one of those effortless, long-striding marathon runners who even more than Springsteen is born to run. As a candidate, Barack doesn’t know the meaning of quit. And this was the mentality that he brought to the health care fight once he internalized the lessons of Scott Brown’s election.

Frankly, this was the Obama that I envisioned when I saw him mow down the competition in 2008 and assume the mantle of the nation’s first non-white President in history. This was the Obama that I even dreamed might someday bust heads together, week after week, month after month, until finally, against all odds, we had ourselves a peace deal in the Middle East. I knew that was a long shot, but I figured the odds were better with Barack as President than with any other politician of this era.

Now that the health care reform battle is over, and the forces of economic equity (if not efficiency) have won, it is time to take a breath and welcome for the first time the President that we thought we elected back in November of ’08. Our leader understands now what he must do. He is at his best when (a) he is fighting, not simply facilitating, (b) he is working on a competitive campaign, not simply attempting to administer a large, complex organization, and (c) he is marketing both a substantive cause and a somewhat unflattering portrait of his opposition. This is admittedly different from the bi-partisan Barack that he was hoping to show us during his first year in office. But that Barack is as useless today as a dime in a public phone booth. The Republicans don’t want to play ball with him. They didn’t give him one friggen vote in his signature legislation. Not one! The result is that in a land that stands for freedom above all else, Barack can’t help but understand that the GOP has done him a favor. They have freed him to do what he does best: campaign! In that regard, he is both experienced and accomplished.

It is too early to declare that Barack is home free and that the rest of his Presidency is all downhill from here. Plenty of things can, and surely will, go wrong. But at least he has a functioning blueprint as to what does and does not work in his White House. Now that he has a knowledge base, he should be able to succeed or fail on the basis of his talent level. And in that regard, I don’t know about you, but I kind of like his odds.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Last week, my blog post dealt with the Netanyahu Government’s insult of Vice President Biden in announcing an expansion of Israel’s East Jerusalem settlements at the same time that Biden was in Israel to kick off a new round of brokered peace talks. At more or less the same time that I wrote that piece, a related article was published in the “Middle East Channel,” a partnership of the NAF Middle East Task Force and the Project on Middle East Political Science. This article included the following paragraph:

“… Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by an Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government was building 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, the administration reacted. But no one was more outraged than Biden who, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, engaged in a private, and angry, exchange with the Israeli Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus's Mullen briefing: ‘This is starting to get dangerous for us,’ Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. ‘What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.’ Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: ‘The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.’ The message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives.”

There you have in a nutshell the absurdity of American foreign policy today. We are throwing bazillions of dollars and over a hundred thousand troops into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In waging those expensive wars, we recognize that the continued conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is largely fueling our enemy, which associates us with our ally, Israel. Yet, despite the fact that we have stated in strong and consistent terms our opposition to Israel’s policy of relentlessly expanding its settlements in pre-67 Palestine, we continue to provide Israel with $2.4 billion per year in aid, far more than we give to any other country.

Perhaps that equation doesn’t sound so absurd to you. Perhaps you have bought into the AIPAC party line that (a) it is in the United States’ interests to throw tons of money at Israel because Israel is America’s best friend in the most sensitive region in the world, and (b) how Israel chooses to deal with its Palestinian neighbors is none of the United States’ business. Strip down that logic, however, and what you see is a country – and a lobby – trying to have its cake and eat it too.

Yes, Israel has no less of a right than the United States to wage war as it sees fit, and there is no question that Israel and the Palestinians are at war. But if you believe people like Joe Biden – or if you pay any attention to common sense – the continuation of that war is threatening the vital interests of the United States, including the survival of our own soldiers. Moreover, the United States, not Israel, is the sole party who has the right to decide how much international aid America should give to foreign countries. If Israel is acting in a way that the United States disapproves vis a vis its neighbors, that is Israel’s business, not ours … but when it comes time to dole out international aid, the United States should take into account whether Israel is behaving in a way that we deem to be consistent with the welfare of Americans generally, and our soldiers in particular.

Given everything I have said about America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is ironic that I would quote General Petraeus for anything. But please consider what he recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee and tell me, do these words not have the ring of truth? “[The Middle East] conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in [the Middle East and South Asia] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.”

The point is undeniable: America needs the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to end. President Obama has decided that a critical step in that direction is for Israel to stop building its controversial settlements. And Israel is resolute in furthering a policy of settlement expansion. To bring another country into the mix, that should be what’s known as a Mexican stand-off: a confrontation in which two parties are at an impasse, and which neither should be able to “win.” Yet so far, one party has been winning -- because no matter how much America needs Israel to make some compromises, no matter how much America calls for compromise, and no matter how unwilling the Netanyahu Government is in making compromises, America continues to dole out far more money to Israel in international aid than to any other country. (Egypt, which is in second place, receives $700 million less than Israel, and Pakistan, in third place, receives $1.6 billion less than Israel, or only 1/3 of what Israel receives.

As a staunch Zionist, I am loathe to even discuss the issue of America’s aid to Israel. I support it wholeheartedly – as a general principle. But there are times in history when tough love is appropriate. And given just how far to the right the Netanyahu Government has turned, this may just be one of those times. If Israel continues on its current course of strangling Gaza and building up its settlements in the West Bank/East Jerusalem – i.e., if Netanyahu remains hell bent on maximizing Palestinian pain in an attempt to get them to “cry uncle,” a policy that Obama and Clinton clearly oppose -- it is time to take a hard look at our own purse strings. Even by withdrawing a small amount of aid to Israel, this could have significant symbolic significance.

Trust me, as a People of the Book, we Jewish people understand symbolism. For years, Israel has been employing the symbol of the bully as a weapon against the Palestinians, and this has reached a crescendo in the person of Netanyahu. Armed with the seemingly omnipotent wing-man known as AIPAC, he seems to think he can treat Obama (and the American taxpayer) in the same way, and so far, he’s been right.

My advice to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is to think of the money America doles out in foreign aid like a kid thinks of lunch money. That belongs to us and to those who treat us like friends. Bullies can go buy their own lunches.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Joe Biden. He must understand what I’m saying. After all, he’s from Scranton – he knows that a bully only respects you when you fight back.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bibi, Biden and the Opportunity for Brokered Bickering

This past week was a banner one for the Middle East Peace Process. It was the week when the Government of Bibi Netanyahu was outed as yahoos, obstructions to peace, and most importantly, fair game for the U.S. Government to treat like a piñata.

For those of you who’ve done a Rip Van Winkle imitation this week and have missed the events in the Holy Land, Vice President Joe Biden went to the region to help publicize a major breakthrough. This was supposed to be the beginning of four months of so-called “indirect” peace talks in which George Mitchell, the United States’ Middle East Peace Envoy, would shuttle between the Israelis and Palestinians as the first step toward ultimate face-to-face negotiations between the combatant parties. However, shortly after those talks were announced, and while Vice President Biden was still in the Region, the Israeli Interior Ministry issued a public statement that Israel planned to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians view as the future capital of any viable Palestinian state. This public statement was actually distributed by Bibi’s office, and while he claims that the timing of the statement had nothing to do with Biden’s visit, he is clearly supportive of the policy of continuing to enlarge the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem.

Let’s step back a second. Before becoming an activist on peace issues, I didn’t have any compunction against publicly criticizing Israel. Now, however, after working with people whose entire approach to Middle East Peace is lecturing Israel, and after noting how far away the Palestinians are from demonstrating that they’re willing to accept Israel as a permanent Jewish state, I’m not nearly as willing to put Israel down. Still, there are times when even those peace activists who are truly pro-Israel as well as pro-Palestinian have to step back and call a spade a spade: Bibi Netanyahu and his coalition of Likudniks and right-wing extremists are enemies of peace. Or, to be more precise, Bibi might indeed want to see a peaceful solution someday in the distant future, but what he’s willing to offer the Palestinians today is peanuts. And I don’t blame them for telling Bibi where he can stick it.

I guess if nothing else, the peoples who are bringing you perpetual war in the Middle East now have twin slogans. For the Palestinians, their slogan should be the “Two-Stage Solution” – meaning that they claim to support two states, but really, they want Israel to voluntarily give up land to create a Palestinian state (that’s stage 1) and then they expect to see Arabs acquire more and more of the so-called “Israeli” land until eventually, they would have a majority in that state as well (that’s stage 2). It’s not going to happen – nor should it – but if you talk to Palestinians, many see this as the inevitable result of the fact that the region has more Arabs than Jews. As for the Israelis, their slogan should be the “One and One-Half State Solution.” The Jews would get one state. And the Palestinians would get half a state – specifically, whatever is left of the Arab side of the 1967 borders after you carve out the increasing number of Jewish settlements, including those in East Jerusalem. Under the circumstances, it’s not hard to figure out why peace in this region is so illusory.

Taking a look at the broader picture, this week might best be understood as a terrific opportunity for the peace process. The Obama Administration is on record as saying that if there is to be peace, the settlement building must stop. Israel has now thoroughly and blatantly thumbed its noses at that idea. It’s harder to be more aggressively pro-settlement than to announce (a) plans for a large new settlement (b) in some of the land that is dearest to the Palestinians, and (c) at the same time that the United States Vice President is in the region announcing a new round of peace talks. This sort of “screw you, America” message deserves a response. It has given the American Government pretty wide berth to sharpen its rhetoric AGAINST Netanyahu and his minions.

I realize that Bibi is trying to come across as a Jewish version of Dick Cheney – Captain Macho. He would have us believe that no matter what the U.S. says against his Administration, he could care less. Israel will do what Israel thinks is in its best interest, and if the U.S. doesn’t like that, that’s our problem. But … that kind of attitude can only be taken so far. At some point, those of us who have opposed the growing “BDS” movement with respect to Israel (i.e., boycotts, divestiture and sanctions) will be forced to reconsider. At some point, an Israeli Administration can become so noxious that even the country’s greatest friends in the U.S. – even staunch Zionists like yours truly – will have to say that the Administration needs to be taught a lesson.

So watch out, Bibi. You’re not nearly as omnipotent as you might think you are. And for my fellow American Zionists who have been so loyal in supporting Israel, just remember: supporting Israel is one thing, supporting Bibi Netanyahu is something very, very different.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


These are tough times in Washington, or at least so everyone is telling you. The President’s approval rating is down, Congress is thoroughly loathed, and the level of bi-partisanship is at its lowest point in decades. Do you know what that means? There’s only one place to go: up!

Actually, I’m rather liking the situation in Washington these days, because things are bound to get better. For starters, they are at least going to get exciting.

On March 29th, Congress takes off for a full two weeks. Yeah, I know – they could take off for two months or two years and most of us wouldn’t miss ’em. But seriously, this particular recess comes at an opportune time. It has been about ten months since health care reform first dominated this President’s agenda – and it has been front and center ever since. Even those of us who support passing a bill are sick and tired of the gridlock it has generated. It’s time for this President and this Congress to fish or cut bait. That means that when the Congress returns from its recess on April 10th, you can bet that it will be ready to move on to other things. We’ll still have demagoguery, corruption, scandals, hypocrisy, favoritism … all the things we’ve come to expect from a modern U.S. Congress. But they won’t involve health care reform, because if we don’t get this deal done by March 28th, it’s not happening any time soon.

The Congress knows that all too well. They have three weeks to implement sweeping health care legislation, or go down in history as just the latest in a growing line of Congresses to swing-and-miss when it comes to this topic. And the Democrats in Congress have been given a special gift that will increase their chances of making things happen now (as opposed to never): they no longer have to worry about depending on the Republicans for cooperation. The GOP has demonstrated that it is united in opposition to any bill. They’re not even pretending to be willing to throw a few votes in the Democrats’ direction. That means that the battle will be waged entirely on the Democrats’ side of the aisle. So say bye, bye to any temptation to waste time bashing Republicans. That Party has cast its no vote – we’ve heard them. Now we can and must ignore them. It’s time for the Democrats to stand up on center stage and show us who they are and what they’ve got.

By all rights, the Democrats should have a cake walk passing a health care reform bill. They have the White House. They have 59 percent of the House, and 59 percent of the Senate. And now that the Republicans have abdicated their right to participate in grooming any bill, the Dems have effectively been given carte blanche to pass a bill through reconciliation, meaning that they need only a bare majority in both houses of Congress to get the job done. Add to those facts one more: during the Presidential primaries before this past election, EVERY major Democratic candidate unequivocally championed the need to make our health care system much more universal. So the Democrats have to recognize that their base is rabidly supportive of health care reform. Oh yeah – and there’s also the fact that the whole raison d’être of the Democratic Party rests on the need to provide the poor, working class and lower-middle class with the same fundamental rights that the rest of us enjoy. If a meaningful opportunity to obtain health care insurance isn’t counted among those rights, what is?

Whenever I read in the newspaper about the bleak state of Congress’s efforts to reform health care, I’m reminded of one simple truth: the Democrats in Congress simply have no choice. If they want to retain their credibility as a Party, they know that they must deliver. And as for individual Democrats in Congress, if they come across as opposing this cause at this time, they run the risk of being ostracized by their fellow Democrats. Something tells me that with a 59 percent majority, even the Democrats can’t figure out a way to blow this one – they might be incompetent, but I don’t think they’re courageous enough to become a second Party of No. It takes guts to channel Groucho as Professor Wagstaff in Horsefeathers, who famously said, “Whatever it is. I’m against it.” Democrats just aren’t that gutsy.

So, my guess is that in the three weeks between now and March 29th, we’ll go through plenty of entertaining sturm und drang, as Democratic Representatives and Senators hand-wring and posture and generally make asses of themselves. But by the time the 29th comes around, we’ll have ourselves a new health care reform bill.

Still, I admit that my prediction might be overly optimistic. The Democrats could indeed tie themselves up like a bunch of drunks playing Twister. They could end up leaving for the recess by throwing up their hands and throwing some of their fellow Democrats under the bus. “Of course I wanted health care reform,” they might say, “but we’ve got to pay for what we spend. Some of my colleagues don’t seem to get that.” Blah, blah, blah. It isn’t hard to imagine failure, now is it?

The thing is, though, that even if that happens – even if the nation’s uninsured get screwed – there should at least be a huge silver lining. If I’m right, the progressives who’ve tried until now to cut the President some slack will be loaded for bear. They’ll demand the kind of change the President promised in his campaign but has yet to deliver. They’ll ignore the GOP – which should be a pleasure -- and instead shine the light where it belongs: on the so-called Democrats who couldn’t give a damn about core Democratic principles but nevertheless occupy seats, and even positions of leadership, within the Democratic caucus. They’ll put pressure on these politicians to behave like Democrats or get the hell out of Washington. Call it a spring cleaning. Lord knows that the Party needs one.

Let’s assume the conservatives are correct and that this really is a center-right country. In such a land, before meaningful progressive changes can occur, conditions might need to seem dire. After eight years of Bush Light, the country was desperate for change, and that’s why we have Barack Obama. Now, the country might need to see the Democratic Party turn into the Keystone Kops before it is ready to kick some donkey butt. Frankly, I hope this doesn’t have to happen. I truly would love to see health care reform passed. But if the bill doesn't pass, hope might not be altogether lost for the Obama Administration. Next time, though, the impetus for change might have to come from the grass roots rather than from either side of Pennsylvania Avenue. And if it comes to that, it may not be pretty for the likes of Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and the other lukewarm Democrats.