Thursday, September 29, 2016

Shimon Peres's Real Victory

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli President, died at ninety-three, a revered elder statesman, but his glory days were as part of a suspect young guard. In the early fifties, he was part of a cadre of defense officials whom David Ben-Gurion promoted in order to wrest control of the economy from veteran leaders of the Zionist Labor Federation and hand it to the fledgling state. Peres was at first hawkish, in favor of nuclear deterrence against Arab invasion and retaliation against Palestinian border attacks. He ended his career as a symbol of the peace process, after secretly initiating and championing the 1993 Oslo Accords, for which he and his co-signers, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, won the Nobel Peace Prize. “If I’ve changed my policies, it’s because the situation has changed. I was a hawk, but when we could make peace I was a dove,” he told David Remnick, in 2002.

For his seventy years of public life, Peres was famous as a man who tempered his views to accommodate shifts in political power. He held almost every important government post—Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, President—and served people he both idolized and reviled. After the Oslo negotiations stalled, and during the darkest days of the Second Intifada, Peres assumed his last significant position, as Ariel Sharon’s Foreign Minister, and stayed even after Sharon put Arafat under siege. Yossi Beilin, an Oslo negotiator and a protégé of Peres, was not impressed: of Sharon, he said, in 2002, “To do what he is doing now, he needs a rabbi to make it all kosher.” Beilin added, “In Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon got the most kosher rabbi in the world.”

Yet it would be wrong to suppose that Peres lacked governing principles. What set him apart, and prepared him for a short but pivotal premiership from 1984 to 1986, was political-economic prescience. Early on, he was a builder of Israel’s military power, becoming an expert on increasingly sophisticated arms. He grew fascinated by advanced technologies and, more important, the kind of society that advances them. In many ways, Israel’s entrepreneurial burst in the nineties was facilitated by Peres’s economic reforms of the eighties. It is no diminution of his achievement to say that he was Israel’s first technocrat. “The Arabs have the numerical superiority; we have technological superiority,” he told a cluster of reporters in 1974, while he was the Minister of Communications. “Technology will always defeat numbers.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Friday, September 23, 2016

Obama's New Deal With Israel

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu met at the United Nations on Wednesday—their conversation was, as expected, tactful, punctuated by smiles and banter. The President—whose Administration just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U.) with Israel, committing to a ten-year, thirty-eight-billion-dollar aid package—has reason, this election season, to stress his contribution to Israel’s military strength. “We want to make sure that Israel has the full capabilities it needs in order to keep the Israeli people safe,” Obama told the press before the meeting. Netanyahu, who has openly allied with Congressional Republicans—and has been attacked at home for damaging relations with the President in the process—has reason to show gratitude for the Administration’s largesse. “The military aid deal fortifies Israel’s security and makes sure it can defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” he said.

Israel currently receives about half of all American foreign military aid, about three billion dollars annually, and has gotten a significant, long-term increase, so gratitude is certainly not misplaced. The M.O.U. includes five hundred million dollars each year for Israel’s missile-defense technology, and supports Israel’s acquisition of F-35s, offered to no other ally. But the M.O.U. is really a victory for Obama over Netanyahu and his conservative supporters in Washington—quieter than the Iran deal but arguably as decisive.

As I reported in March, the essential condition Obama set for a significant increase in aid was that Netanyahu make a binding commitment that he (and his successors, presumably) would not lobby Congress for more support in the next decade. A part of the Administration’s thinking, a former White House official told me then, was that the American government needed to budget its foreign-aid appropriations over the long term. But another consideration, the former official said, was overtly political. Obama did not want Israeli officials making common cause with Congressional Republicans during future election cycles, much as he did not want the aid negotiations to hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during this one. The Obama Administration informed Netanyahu, a senior official told Haaretz in February, that, if he refused the no-lobbying condition, he was “free to wait for the next administration.” Netanyahu chose not to, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, complained that the Prime Minister “pulled the rug” from under his conservative allies in Congress.

Read on at The New Yorker

Monday, September 19, 2016

Clinton: Take Control Of The Election's 'Story'

Every election is, in a way, a protest vote. Listen to this interview with Ron Susskind on “Radio Open Source” (hosted by the incomparable Chris Lydon) and then tell me the Clinton campaign does not need to change the focus of this race. We can’t take our eyes off Trump, Susskind says, because he has given us an unfinished story, which transforms into compelling drama—will he, or will he not, blow up Washington in the name of those left behind by global forces? Can he really pull it out? Clinton needs to give us a better story and a more interesting drama—stay loyal to Obama, but not become a captive of the status quo. She needs to give us something palpable to win or lose, which the press can start imagining to be the “story” of the election. Imagine, then, that she made the following speech: 

My fellow Americans,

I know that you know my opponent’s faults. So I am going to stop harping on them. There are plenty of others—editors, historians, generals, officials in Republican administrations, icons of our culture—who feel embarrassed, and panicked, at the thought of Trump presidency. They provide you, every day, enough reason to reject him. I’ll add only that I’ve lived in New York long enough, and have known Donald long enough, to know that people in the real estate business call him “a closer”—call him this with a certain envy, even though the big New York banks stopped lending him money years ago—call him this because they know he’ll say anything, promise anything, insult anyone, flatter anyone, he thinks will turn a customer toward his deal. Donald is not an idiot. He just thinks you are.

But I also know that I have much to account for myself. The hard question I have to answer, and it’s time I admitted this, is why such obvious doubts about him have not translated into enthusiasm for my candidacy. What are the doubts about me? That’s what I want to speak about.

I’ve admitted that I’m not a natural politician, but that’s not the real problem. I am, as my friend Barack Obama put it in 2008, “likable enough.” Pundits fill air time telling you I have been too secretive, so you can’t really know me, or I have been in your face too long, so you are bored of me; or I am too programmed, or I’ve made gaffes; or I’m a woman, so the test is more demanding, or his boorishness is fascinating, so he’s graded on a curve. There is a measure of truth to all of these perceptions. But they miss the main point—the thing our media seems to miss most consistently.

This election is not a referendum on my arguable political talent or Trump’s arguable decency—nor is it a game of splicing together a majority of “demographics.” It is about your anxieties, your families. Somehow, almost unimaginably, a good number of you think Trump, born to his gilded penthouse, and profiteering by stiffing little guys, identifies with your problems, while Bill and I, who came from nothing, do not. This is partly my fault, I confess: I have been campaigning like an earnest student, learning how what seem big social problems have evolved, doing her homework, formulating papers, and wondering why you are not giving me an A.

What I’ve really failed to consider is the biggest problem of all. My positions don’t matter if, as President, I can’t get anything passed. And year after year, or what may seem year after year, the government has itself often seemed an embarrassment: dysfunctional, paralyzed, full of name-calling. Many of you would like to throw a bomb at Washington, though you know in your hearts that a bomb can only destroy. The bomb, in this election, is Trump.

Read on at Talking Points Memo