Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mahmoud Abbas, The Trump Administration, And The Politics Of Peace

Donald Trump met Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem today, a twofer for a President intent, as the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, put it last week, on visiting “homelands and holy sites” and expressing “his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.” Reading prepared remarks, in a Presidential palace outfitted with the trappings of sovereignty, Trump told reporters that he’d work with Abbas on “unlocking the potential of the Palestinian economy.” Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister and a settlement advocate, probably spoke for most of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last November, when he declared that, with Trump’s election, “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” Today, in Bethlehem, it was prolonged.

Much has been written about the Trump Administration’s growing desire to conceive that state from the region in, rather than from the conflict out. Yesterday, in Riyadh, Trump reportedly agreed with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to hold a peace summit, with Netanyahu, Abbas, and Jordanian and possibly even Saudi representatives in attendance. There is also much discussion about the vulnerability of Netanyahu’s government, due to the ongoing criminal investigations (he is accused of, among other things, enabling close associates to profit from Israel’s procurement of naval vessels) but also to the threat posed by coalition partners like Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, which would rather topple the government than accept concessions—particularly a prospective Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem—under U.S. pressure. But Palestinians have a politics, too, which usually gets only cursory attention. Abbas has an ongoing rivalry with Hamas, but other challenges besides; if the Trump Administration procrastinates, or expects significant new concessions from him, Abbas’s staying power is similarly uncertain.

Abbas is eighty-two, with a smoking habit, and he has no designated successor. He is the head of the Fatah movement and was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. (As a Palestinian friend told me, Abbas is in his twelfth year of a four-year term.) He won with more than sixty per cent of the vote. Yet polls now show that more than sixty per cent of Palestinians want him gone. His achievements—two rounds of peace negotiations with Israel, first with Ehud Olmert, in 2008, then with Netanyahu, in 2014; securing non-member observer-state status for Palestine at the United Nations, and Palestinian standing with the International Criminal Court—are shadowed by suspicions that P.A. leaders engage, if only by necessity, in a form of collaboration that occasions financial corruption and undermines Palestinian honor.

“Despite some shrewd diplomatic moves, the reality on the ground is bitter, muddled,” Sam Bahour, a prominent business consultant in Ramallah, told me. Ordinary Palestinians resent what they see as a “defunct political system, no parliamentary elections since January, 2006, and police brutality, especially against Hamas supporters.” Some P.A. officials have managed the flow of aid to monopolistic enterprises that provide perks and inflated salaries to friends and family—reportedly including Abbas’s son. According to the Times of London, European Union auditors can’t account for nearly two billion pounds in aid distributed between 2008 and 2012. But the World Bank reports that about thirty per cent of Palestinians are categorized as unemployed, and youth unemployment in Gaza is nearly sixty per cent. Abbas has also appeared powerless to prevent new Israeli settlements, military aggression, and the siege on Gaza.

None of this means that Hamas is viewed as the necessary alternative. According to Khalil Shikaki, the director of Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, leads Abbas in Presidential polls forty-nine per cent to forty-four. This seems more a barometer of frustration, though, than an endorsement of Hamas ideology. The Islamist group rarely polls above thirty per cent in parliamentary elections, while Fatah polls above forty. Hamas violently expelled the Fatah leadership of the P.A. from Gaza, in 2007; it has since refused to renounce terrorist acts against Israel, or to recognize Israel’s legitimacy—even in the group’s recently revised charter, which accepts a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. Among the public, Hamas’s tough talk and missile attacks excite general pride but also a fear of fatal recklessness, particularly given the horrors in Syria. “For older Palestinians, Damascus feels next door,” the veteran West Bank journalist Danny Rubinstein told me. “They focus on normal life. They’ll overlook a lot—corruption, even collaboration—to keep things from descending into chaos. But what do young people overlook?”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trump's Administration Wants A Regional Deal--And Can Outlast Trump

JERUSALEM — President Trump leaves for the Middle East on Friday. The trip’s objectives, his national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has told reporters, is to “broadcast a message of unity to America’s friends” and to pay his respects to the “homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.”

Mr. Trump will begin in Saudi Arabia, with which his administration is nearing consummation of a $100 billion arms deal; he’ll meet with leaders of the Arab League — America’s “partners,” as General McMaster says — whom he’ll encourage “to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to Al Qaeda to Iran to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos.” In Jerusalem, Mr. Trump will “reaffirm America’s unshakable bond to the Jewish state” and in Bethlehem, “express his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.” American leadership is necessary to “move the region toward the peace, security and stability that the people there so deserve,” General McMaster said.

Let’s strain to ignore the latest reasons to question Mr. Trump’s fitness for office or, indeed, his survivability in it: the firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director, the intelligence leak to Russia. General McMaster has laid out the policy lines of a Republican administration that is just beginning its four-year term. To be sure, the approach has been enigmatic so far. But that may be an advantage, since progress toward those goals does not depend on the president alone.

Read on at The New York Times

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Book About THE BOOK


It has been five years since I published Promiscuous, my labor-of-love about Portnoy's Complaint.  Books about books are normally about as compelling as your cousin's snapshots of Prague. I tried to make this book seriously fun, while answering a deceptively simply question:

Who is really the object of the satire?

Parents? Adolescent sexual cravings? Jews? Bourgeois self-possession? Psychoanalysis? Orthodoxy-in-general? The reader?

My thanks to the "Tel Aviv Review" podcast for giving me the chance to revisit all of these questions, and especially to Dahlia and Gilad for raising good ones of their own.

The publisher's page, is full of information, reviews and blurbs. The most interesting reviews are from Tablet, The Forward, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Oh, and you can order Promiscuous here.    

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Silvers

At the end of 1973, just after the October War, I was a graduate student in Jerusalem and wrote a long, vexed political essay on the war; I had no idea who might publish it, but I wanted very much for I. F. Stone to read it. On an impulse, I sent it to Robert Silvers and asked that he pass it along. A couple of weeks later I got a telegram the size of a letter, asking me, with astonishing courtesy, whether I had “placed the piece,” and if not, whether I would “consider” the New York Review. (I did.)

By the time I met Bob, in the fall of 1974, I had done three more pieces for the “paper,” as he called it. I’d begun to learn—from a dozen long-distance conversations, cigar-perfumed galleys, and packets of clippings that would show up in my mailbox almost daily—that I had a lot to learn, not only about my subject but about choosing my words, which seemed increasingly indistinguishable from my comportment in the world. I had, by then, the disquiet of an orphan and a father; what seemed to him the routine indulgences of writers seemed to me extraordinary mentoring. When we finally met for dinner, at Patsy’s, in New York, the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser was in tow, auditioning me for a spot in the club of Jewish seriousness. I must have passed, because the next morning Bob asked me whom else I would like to meet. I answered, hardly thinking, Philip Roth and Noam Chomsky. The next morning, Roth was scrambling eggs for me; three days later, in Cambridge, Chomsky was explaining discriminatory Israeli land law.

This was how things proceeded for the next ten years; during my twenties and early thirties—during which I was drifting between North America and Jerusalem, academia and journalism—I produced twenty more articles. I had finally finished a doctorate, but writing for Bob had become the closest thing I had to a profession. The subjects of our conversations widened: to Jordan, terror, Arthur Koestler, the people of the book transformed into the people of the book review. I moved from Israel to New York in 1979, and Bob provided a letter to help with my mortgage; the next year, he helped me get a job at the M.I.T. Writing Program. Things continued pretty much this way until 1985. They ended, rather abruptly, when I published my first book, The Tragedy of Zionism, the rationale for which he could not really understand, and which I was too young and tangled to fully explain. Why revisit the history of Zionism, or explain Israel’s democratic deficiencies, to cover the triumphs of the settlers and Likud? We never spoke about, or even acknowledged, the rupture; that would have been uncivil, mawkish. But the assignments and calls ended. I took a real job, as an editor myself. Love stories don’t end well when one kisses and the other gives the cheek.

Yet love it was. There is a patch of road in Connecticut, between Boston and New York, where the highway sign says “Roberts Street / Silver Lane,” and, for many years, the flash of the words as I’d drive took me to a moment of longing. There were few days when I did not catch myself remembering where I learned how to say this or cut that; I still imagine his handwriting in my margins. After HBO made a documentary about Bob a couple of years ago, I finally wrote him, tipping my heart: “What sticks above all is the voice, your voice, which I heard in the best part of myself over the twelve years I wrote for you, learning something about grace and precision in almost every encounter. I am now not young: a grandfather. Still, it was thrilling to hear that voice again last night, as I watched the film. I just want you to know that I am thinking of you with gratitude—and always will.” The answer was predictably gracious, generous, deflecting sentiment, ending, as always, with “My best.” It was.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Netanyahu: The Art Of The Finesse

Wednesday was supposed to be Benjamin Netanyahu’s day—the first time, during his nearly eleven years as Prime Minister of Israel, that a Republican President greeted him at the White House. Not only had he outlasted Barack Obama but he’d seen the election of a candidate who, during his campaign, seemed to have bought Netanyahu’s pitch. As President-elect, Donald Trump tweeted against the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of settlements in Palestinian territory, promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and nominated a hard-line settlement supporter to be his Ambassador to Israel.

Things did not work out as planned. On Monday night, Michael Flynn, Trump’s national-security adviser, who was expected to amplify Netanyahu’s claims of an Iranian threat, resigned. Washington was in tumult over reports of Flynn and other Trump advisers’ communications with Russian intelligence officials. Netanyahu himself arrived compromised by personal scandal and political strain. He is the target of three criminal investigations, and an indictment in any of them could force his resignation, much as corruption allegations forced the resignation of his predecessor and rival Ehud Olmert, in 2008. The most serious of these accusations has undermined his support in Israel’s security establishment, which he purports to represent. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been cornered by zealots in his coalition, who had assumed, with his encouragement, that Trump’s election would allow them to freely pursue the settlement project, unhindered by talk of a Palestinian state.

Much has been made of Trump’s remarks Wednesday about the prospects for a two-state solution. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said at his joint press conference with Netanyahu. “I can live with either one.” Many saw this as a victory for the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition, but Trump’s remarks were contradictory at times, and complicated for Netanyahu. “Trump said ‘compromise,’ criticized new settlements, said we have ‘to agree,’ “ Mohammad Mustafa, the head of the Palestine Investment Fund, and a confidant of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, told me. “These sound like positions Israel needs to hold for the two-state solution to succeed.” He added, “But it is obvious that, if we are to have a sovereign Palestinian state, we need to move away from this state of ambiguity as soon as possible.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Witness For The Prosecution: UNSC 2334

A kind of debate with legal scholars who, in effect, are acting as the current Israeli government's defense attorneys.  It was sponsored by the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, which gave us, among others, Chief Justice John Roberts.  I did my best.

Link to the Podcast



Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Too Early For The 2020 Ticket? Think Again.

It is hard not to compare Donald Trump’s chilling performance last Friday to Charles Schumer’s tepid one—the Big Lie countered by the half-truth, the worse-than-expected introduced by the better-than-nothing. Trump told the assembled, in effect, that the other political leaders on the stage with him were either ignoring, or profiteering from, middle America’s misery. Foreign governments were either ripping them off or riding for free. This day would be remembered for returning the government to the people. Trump alone was the people’s champion: their allegiance to America, thus to “solidarity,” should be “absolute”; he led, not a party, but “a movement.” America first, America’s new leader fighting (here comes the fascist’s pathos) with “every breath in my body.” Forget information provided by government officials; this was not to be trusted. The press was not to be trusted. The movement had its truth, the champion alone could be trusted.

Schumer, anticipating the message, was reassuring enough, tying together kinds of Americans like Mr. Rogers tying his sneakers: “Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country.” Notice that to live “in wealth or in poverty” meant living in just another demographic, something like sexual orientation, the leveling coming from “fierce” patriotic devotion. But the times are “tumultuous,” Schumer began, and so wealth creation “benefits too few.” For last-breath-in-my-body pathos, Schumer defaulted to a soldier who fell in the Civil War.

Perhaps I am being unkind. Schumer has been an effective Democratic politician and fund-raiser; people I know say he’s good company. But his conspicuousness at the Inauguration underlines something Democrats have not quite digested. Take it from someone who has lived through Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu for two generations: ruthless leaders, carried to power by nationalist populism, cannot be satirized, fact-checked, op-eded, or demonstrated out of office. An opposition political party needs to defeat Trump—defeat his Republican toadies, his phony but dangerous “movement.” This means an opposition to which he can be invidiously compared—an alternative against which every Trump move looks pale, coarse, copycat.

The Democratic party, in other words, must have a clear message that speaks to the anxieties of the traditional Democratic voters it lost. And the message needs a tough, plausible messenger: a leader, or small number of united leaders, who embody—in their persons, their logic, their stories, and their demonstrated courage—integrity that advances what they are saying. If the message is right, and the messenger is authentic, you get a winning charisma. Schumer is not that messenger.

This may seem obvious, but it is worth saying why he is not. Rustbelt voters rejected Hillary Clinton because they resented, one, Wall Street, two, the entertainment industry, three, an Iraq war supported “on a bipartisan basis” (and where my kids go and your kids don’t), four, journalists and political consultants who seem condescendingly manipulative, and, five, the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Now think of Schumer. Does anybody seriously believe people who rejected Clinton think Schumer is more credible? What scorned box does he not check?

Read on at Talking Points Memo 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Is Donald Trump The Friend Israel Needs?

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect.” Thus President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted just before Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week. He added: “They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but …”

Mr. Trump was presuming to side with Israel in its regional fight, but … as Mr. Kerry implied, particularly when he spoke elegiacally of Shimon Peres, one cannot be a friend to Israel without actually being a friend to some Israelis over others, one conception of Israel, the region, and Jews, for that matter, over another. These are also Jewish culture wars — centered on Israel, but played out vicariously among American Jews — and Mr. Trump has stepped, or stumbled, into the thick of them. Nor do they affect Jews alone, given America’s web of relations in the region. One hopes and trusts that senior appointees to his foreign policy team will take notice.

Their job became more difficult last month when Mr. Trump’s transition team named David M. Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer, as the next United States ambassador to Israel, soon after announcing an intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Mr. Friedman, a major fund-raiser for the Beit El settlement built on the hills around the West Bank city of Ramallah, would doubtless feel at home in Jerusalem, where I live for half the year. The mental atmosphere of Greater Israel is nested here and in its encircling settlements.

By contrast, he would barely know what to make of Tel Aviv, where the embassy is now. That city is the heart of what could be called “Global Israel,” a Hebrew hub in a cosmopolitan system.

Read on at The New York Times