Thursday, October 29, 2009

OMG a post NOT about J Street!

"The attacks in Baghdad this past Sunday, October 25, illustrate the challenges of creating an indigenous security force which can effectively address threats that face its state, particularly threat from insurgents who are willing to conduct large-scale, indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets."

Wow, what an insightful well reasoned thought out point. I definitely definitely could not possibly have written the article that is linked below as your thank-goodness-he's-not-blabbing-about-J Street post for the week:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

J Street Conference: Report 2

This article by Haaretz's Natasha Mozgovaya is a very fair analysis of the conference, and I agree with a lot of her points.

The report left off yesterday at the Rockin' the Status Quo party, which mostly turned out to be a few young people and more older people on a dance floor. But it seems that an analysis of the event might be more worthwhile.

I liked the energy and potential of the conference. The pro-Israel left certainly was happy to have a voice in J Street, and the conference had a heavy media attendance (at least two long tables at the opening event). Many of the panelists were true experts in their fields, and the prescence of National Security Advisor James Jones speaks to the influence the group has in Washington.

That being said, what I didn't like was the consituency. In order to garner public support and grassroots networks, the generally centrist/left-of-center J Street co-sponsored the conference with a number of legitimate but far left groups such as Peace Now and Settlement Watch. While all points of view have their place in the debate, the conference included a number of speakers who clearly were not criticizing Israel for the sake of improving it. Bassim Khoury, a minister in the Palestinian authority, went so far as to classify the political spectrum not as "right and left" but "right and wrong," to approval from the audience. As disrespectful as his presentation was for a pro-Israel conference, the audience tended to clap far more for left-wing statements than right-wing or centrist statements. While it's important for J Street to have nuance, that nuance must span the political spectrum, and not just between center-left and far-left.

There's a reason those who sit on the far left do not have a strong voice in Washington, which is because they are a minority. J Street's aim is to be able to be effective in Washington, which requires centrism and compromise. Having been to J Street events in the nation's capital, its almost as if there's J Street inside D.C., and J Street outside D.C. The group's director, Jeremy Ben Ami, said that he hoped he would be criticized from the far left. This will require taking a much more centrist approach in the future, and not being afraid of alienating some of J Street's current friends.

That being said, it seems Ms. Mozgovaya and I were not the only ones concerned. I spoke with other participants at the conference who expressed similar sentiments. One issue seems to be that many constituents come from a Jewish activist background rather than a policy background. Looking to balance these two networks would be a really good way to appear more mainstream and attract more credibility as an authority on America-Israel affairs.

Now that the group has had its first successful conference, the real work of changing policy can begin. While the overall slant of the conference and its attendees was troubling, I have faith that the organization is acting deliberately and will be a constructive actor in policy debates to come.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

J Street Conference: Report 1

The J Street conference is ongoing in downtown Washington, D.C. Entering the hotel Sunday night, I saw only 2 protesters, one of whom was dressed in traditional Arab clothing for some reason. Inside the hotel were swarms of people wearing the J Street lanyard and identification tags. The crowd assembled was extremely diverse, spanning all age ranges and originating from all parts of the country and around the world. I spoke to two graduate students at Georgetown University about their involvement with the conference, and sat at the opening event next to a British member of the Liberal Jewish movement, who had been sent to the conference to report on the state of progressive Judaism in the U.S.

The opening event itself was headlined by Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's director, who was followed by the new New Israel Fund director Daniel Sokatch. Both spoke to themes of changing the status quo. Ben Ami spoke extensively about the way in which J Street was an "umbrella organization" emphasizing his desire to "widen the tent of pro-Israel activism."

Sokatch spoke about the traditional sidelining of the progressive left on Israel. He mentioned links to Jewish values and a "Yom Kippur" style approach.

The event then featured three discussants for the evening including a young woman, a college intern, and a rabbi who spoke far too long.

Then the tables were urged to discuss questions which had been left on the table. In a show of J Street's prowess in social media and Web 2.0, participants could twitter their comments to the central display in the auditorium.

Ben Ami concluded the event with a rousing speech arguing that "Progressive is the mainstream."

The crowd at the event came from a variety of different backgrounds, which was evident by certain camps clapping at certain statements. Overall the crowd learned very activist liberal (not suprisingly) and young and old were disproportionately represented compared to middle aged. The breakdown appeared to be roughtly 30% college students/young professionals, 20% mid-career professionals and organizational representatives, and 40% activist liberal progressive Jews who were at least in their mid to late 50's.

The diversity of the crowd illustrates one of J Streets future challenges which the conference made evident. The group has a lof of different age groups who all have lots of different opinions. One of my colleagues at the conference expressed suprise that there were so few policy and security-focused people. Unlike AIPAC which specifically holds a "policy conference," the tone of J Street's event was much more "Jewish" to judge from the type of people who attended.

In a suprise event which was exciting only to me, halfway through the conference, former Minister of Defense Amir Peretz walked into the room. He is known for his charcteristic moustache, and stoood out a mile away.

More updates and analysis tomorrow.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

J Street Conference Update

Discussion continues at this hour at the Grand Hyatt hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Today's opening session of the J Street conference was a strong start to what is sure to be a dynamic few days. My full post will appear in a few days, but highlights from tonight include:

1) Speeches from J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami and New Israel Fund Leader Daniel Sokatch.
2) Discussion groups with twitter being used to post responses to discussion questions.
3) Video about Israel featuring a side view of Yours Truly in the background.
3) Seeing former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose mustache identifies him from a mile away.

I may attend the event tomorrow night as well, but updates and analysis will follow in the next few days.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blogging on J Street Conference

The Confused Sheikh is planning to attend the first part of the J Street conference (he will not attend the rest due to a prior engagement at one might call his "job." Expect a full report in the early days of next week.

Until then, check out this interview by Jeffrey Goldberg of J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami. No doubt, the next few days are going to be interesting, full of controversy, and a historic point in American Jewish history.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why Oren SHOULD Have Spoken at J Street

Yesterday's post was an analysis of why Ambassador Oren has chosen not to attend J Street's upcoming conference. In that post I wrote about why he likely decided not to. This post is about why he should have.

It's clear that Ambassador Oren had good reasons for not attending the upcoming J Street conference, much to their dismay. That being said, coming to the conference would have had several benefits for Israel and for the Israeli embassy.

1) Coming to the conference would have been good power politics. Not going to the conference shows that the Israeli government is afraid to take J Street head on. Going to the conference would have been a strong sign of confidence, and giving an Obama-at-Notre-Dame style speech would have been even a stronger sign. It would also have demonstrated that J Street was not so salient or controversial that it was a threat to the unity the traditional right wing groups are concerned about. By not participating, it looks like the government is scared to deal with the group, which itself represents a fractured American Jewish pro-Israel community.

2) Oren's participation in the conference would have created a positive relationship between J Street and the Israeli Embassy. Alliances work both ways, and while ideologically the two may differ, all politics is personal. A J Street staff who knows and likes the Israeli embassy staff is much more likely to make less confrontational statements than a staff who is at odds with the embassy.

3) Ambassador Oren made a safe decision. However, the decisions that will make a difference in the long term for Israel are the risky decisions. Whether the choice to invade Egypt preemptively in 1967, extradite Eichmann to Israel, or sign the 1979 Camp David accords, success for Israel has often required taking risks for peace and security. That Oren will not participate in the conference shows that Israel is erring on the side of caution and inaction when the window to act is closing.

Participation in the conference would have demonstrated that the Israeli government is willing to be as aggressive in peacemaking as it is in warfighting.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oren rejects J Street Invite

In an important but not wholly unexpected move, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren will not attend the J Street conference this weekend but will instead send a lower-ranking representative. J Street press spokesperson Amy Spitalnick told Haaretz's Natasha Mozgovaya that J Street is still extending the invitation.

While it is disappointing that the ambassador will not be lending Israeli support to an organization which, despite its center-left tendencies, is still very much pro-Israel, the decision is a safe one for a few reasons.

1) Legitimizing J Street would anger the right wing base in Israel supporting the Netanyahu government. After finally consolidating a constituency in the wake of the Obama settlement fiasco, Netanyahu would be foolish to give that up. And even moderate Israelis are not huge fans of either J Street or the Obama administration.

2) On balance, Oren's attendance would probably be seen as more negative than positive in the American Jewish community. As influential as J Street may be politically, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, the ZOA, and other groups still represent a huge constituency in the U.S. Traditional right-wing support for Israel is especially critical to Netanyahu now as he fights a crusade against the fallout from the Goldstone report in the international community. At a time when J Street has more influence over the administration than the ZOA, reassurance and support of these traditional groups from the Israeli government is important.

3) All other considerations aside, J Street represents an organization which, while not anti-Israel, stands against several policies of the current Israeli government. Just as an American ambassador for President Obama would be highly unlikely to speak for an "Israelis for Overturning Roe v. Wade" conference, it is not at all unreasonable that the Israeli government would avoid an organization which very publicly opposes its policies.

Unfortunately, there's a difference between knowing why the decision is a good one and knowing the actual factors that went into making it. While I can speculate that #3 accounted for the vast majority of the ultimate decision, insight into the Israeli decision-making process is hard to come by these days (though evidently would-be spies for the Mossad are not). It would also be interesting to see if Oren would have gone but was held back by the government (he has appeared at several Arab and Muslim events in the DC area). Regardless, this is likely to be only the opening round of a long battle between J Street and the Netanyahu administration, and one which is likely to have a significant, and positive, effect on the US-Israel relationship.

And all of this will not detract from the fact that the J Street conference this weekend will be an important and historic event which is likely lend an unprecedented voice to those who believe in moderate and pragmatic solutions to the Israeli-Arab conflict. I, for one, will see you there.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I had a great post ready for today until I came across this article from Huffington Post about a South Carolina newspaper op-ed referencing Jews getting rich by pinching pennies. The actual editorial is a bit less vitriolic than you might believe from reading the ever-spinning HuffPost, but its pretty unbelievable that an editor would let something like that get published in a paper. Here's to the communicative power of the blogosphere...

"There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves."

- Bamberg County, SC GOP Chairman Edwin Merwin and Orangeburg County, SC GOP Chairman James Ulmer

Friday, October 16, 2009

UN Showdown

The UNHRC passed the measure endorsing the report's findings 21-6-11. The text of the resolution was so biased even Judge Goldstone said he wished the wording had been more impartial.

The resolution itself having no intrinsic value (see previous post), what is interesting is how the votes came down.

In Favor
China Russia
Egypt India
Jordan Pakistan
South Africa Argentina
Bahrain Bangladesh
Bolivia Ghana
Indonesia Djibouti
Liberia Qatar
Senegal Brazil
Mauritius Nicaragua

Interesting stuff:
China, Russia, India, Pakistan: These countries account for a huge percentage of the world population and are the strongest countries besides the United States militarily. This means that for all the talk, the U.S.-Israel alliance isn't going anywhere soon. Israel should be concerned with the fact that the three major Asian powers are allying with the Arab bloc on this issue. While Israel has good ties with Russia and India, especially in defense, it may be useful to take this as a reading on what ultimately is motivating these powers (speculative hint: Price of oil?)


Interesting stuff: Ukraine. The Ukraine has been involved in a few minor spats with Israel over the past few months, leading Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer wrote an editorial calling for a boycott of the Ukraine back in February. Yet overall Ukraine-Israel relations have been pretty good, and this may be a small part of a greater attempt by Ukraine to get closer with Israel as a counterbalance to Russia.

Bosnia Burkina-Faso
Cameroon Gabon
Japan Mexico
Norway Belgium
South Korea Slovenia

Not interesting stuff: Norway. This may have something to do with the fact that FM Lieberman recently called Norway anti-semitic. Although to be fair, Norway was honoring a figure with close ties to the Nazi leadership at the time...

Semi-interesting stuff: Japan. A major power that did not align with India/Pak/China, yet also not with the U.S.
Cameroon. Cameroon, which has a 20% Muslim population, and Israel have had relations since 1986 and collaborated on an agricultural project this February.

There is also drama between Egypt and Britian and France over the political gymnastics which preceeded the vote and left both of the European countries off the record.

The vote today was essentially a popularity contest, and Israel definitely lost. But it is at least useful to see what international cliques are forming around Israel, and to use it as a starting point for discussion. Which allies will Israel need to court? Which are irrelevant? Which will never ally with Israel and must be contended with?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Calling a Spade a Spade

Crazy week ---> little posting ---> quick writing ---> poorly nuanced arguments. Feel free to ask for clarification in the comments section.

One point I do want to make quickly is that there is a fine line between holding Israel accountable, and hanging it out to dry. Certainly many people believe Israel was essentially the subject of a witch hunt in the Goldstone Report on Gaza. This idea is arguable for two reasons. Firstly, Goldstone and his team completed as comprehensive a review as they possibly could have. Secondly, the report is available for anyone to read and comment's subject to peer review and the general public gets to react.

The Goldstone report may be partial, but it is not an entirely unfair condemnation of Israeli tactics in operation Cast Lead that violated the law. But continuing to debate this in the U.N. is taking things too far.

The UNHCR resolution to condemn Israel serves no productive purpose whatsoever. It is a purely political tactic designed to energize constituencies in anti-Israel countries, not to advance the cause of human rights. Even if one were to say that Judge Goldstone was unfair, it is difficult to demonstrate that his intentions were blatantly nefarious. However, the proposed resolution and debate on Israel will serve no purpose of human rights. The end result will be to isolate Israel with even less benefit than the Goldstone report. Of course the Goldstone report itself was mandated in political circumstances, but the intent of the committee was accountability, even if in practice their analysis was not even-handed. Playing to politics was a necessary precondition for the report's funding and publication, and overall the findings in it are pretty reasonable.

Conversely, the UNHCR debate wastes the money of U.N. member states on the political viability of leaders who base their popularity on sectarianism and propaganda. It has not even a fringe benefit of accountability, and will end up harming the citizens of the Middle East far more than it will help them.

Accountability works both ways, and it is high time for the UNHRC to demonstrate that it is as impartial a body as would be required for the Goldstone report to retain the less-than-solid integrity on which is is based.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Good News

To be fair, the pages of this blog see a lot of criticism of Israeli policy. So to end the week off on a high note is this article from today's JPost about the efforts of the Israeli police to work with the Negev Bedouin. These efforts are a very positive step for both the police and the Bedouin community. Recruiting Bedouin to the police force puts a local face on authority which means that enforcement of Israeli law will be vastly easier. Also, a police force that has cultural knowledge of the population is much more likely to be able to identify the root causes of illegal activity in the Bedouin community.

For the Bedouin, having a police force that better understands the local population will improve access to the establishment which means that it will be easier to obtain necessary resources for the community. The creation of after-school programs by the police is also a fantastic opportunity to increase Bedouin education, which in the long term is a crucial step to moving the community towards greater integration into the Israeli population.

Finally, as an earlier post this week mentioned, the Israeli-Arab population will be a necessary ally for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of the Bedouin who will be affected by these programs have relatives in Egypt, Gaza, and the West Bank. This means a higher opinion of Israel in the Bedouin community, and better intelligence for Israel.

It is truly refreshing to see that despite riots on the Temple Mount, peace process woes, and high tensions, the Israeli police can work pragmatically to create a win-win situation for themselves as the Israeli establishment, and the Negev Bedouin as a minority rights-deprived population. Hopefully the initiative will receive the necessary funding and can become a model for programs elsewhere in Israel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Islamic Movement

Dan Izenberg has an interesting article on JPost today about the legality of the Islamic movement. Having done research into the movement as part of my senior thesis, I agree that the issue is very complex. Firstly, there is a schism in the movement between the more moderate political side (which actively participates in the Knesset), and the more radical side which is responsible for irritating Palestinian and Israeli-Arab sentiments over the Temple Mount last weekend. The group has not, technically, endorsed violence, but there have been cases in which one could tie the Islamic movement to acts of violence. And there's always a fine line between inculcation and incitement.

That being said, the Islamic movement, like many other radical Islamic groups, promotes itself through providing social services. Many mosques are paid for by the movement, and the Israeli Negev Bedouin can in fact get scholarships to attend school from the movement.

The solution here is clearly not military, but it ties into the more militaristic tactics Israel may have to use in the West Bank. By engaging with the Israeli-Arab community and limiting the Arab public's necessity for an Islamic Movement, Israel would be much more successful at lmiting the risk of terrorism. By arresting Ra'ad Salah, the movement's leader (he was later released and banned from Jlem for 30 days), Israel is only illustrating the threat he poses, which strengthens him.

The West Bank tie-in is that Israeli-Arabs sit along a very precarious rift in the Middle East. On the one hand they enjoy being Israeli citizens overall. Yet they identify strongly with Palestinians, and face discrimination from Israelis and scorn from non-Israeli Arabs. To win the fight against extremist groups in the Palestinian territories, Israel will have to show that in can respect Arabs. At the start this will mean the Israeli-Arab community.

Monday, October 5, 2009

British MP on being pro-Israel

David Cairns, British MP, posts this editorial today in JPost. Score one for nuance.

The point of the article is essentially that being pro-Israel and being pro-Israeli policy are two different things. When support of Israel stems from support of liberal democratic policies, one can only go so far if Israel adopts some policies which are not really liberal or democratic in theory or practice.

The editorial is also significant because the majority of diaspora front-breaking we've seen has been from here in the United States. It will be interesting to see how a centrist nuanced pro-Israel movement spreads from here.

Friday, October 2, 2009


This is a really good editorial from today's Jerusalem Post on the Arab sector in Israel. It speaks very well to the issue of winning over a population in a civil, not just a military, sense.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The AJC Survey and Strategic Peacemaking

In a poll just released by the American Jewish Committee, 75% of American Jews polled agreed with the statement "The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel...Only 19 percent disagreed with the above statement." The poll was conducted with 800 respondents and a + or - 3% margin of error, and you can find it here.

On one level, the question itself invites oversimplification. Evidently, "the Arabs" are easily classifiable as one opinion unit. But ought we assume that Egypt and Lebanon have identical policy goals? On a deeper level, should we even assume radical and moderate members of Hamas have the same policy goals? Or a Bedouin sheikh and the son of an Emirati diplomat? And why should either return of territory or Israel's destruction be the only considerable options? Perhaps the goal of the Arabs is to use the Palestinians as a rallying point to maintain regime stability. Or, perhaps the goal is to create a Palestinian identity through the creation of a state. By treating Arabs as if they all have the same thought process, and either concession or destruction as the only options, one can hardly blame 75% of respondents for picking the latter option. In survey research people will answer the question they are given.

Yet the trends indicated by the poll reveal that generally American Jews severely mistrust Arabs (a full 94 percent said "Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace agreement). And it represents the successful framing of the Arab world by various sectors of the Jewish and pro-Israel community as entirely intolerant to the existence of Israel, when the truth is that most entities pragmatically see that Israel is here to stay for the long term. Even Khalid Meshaal, political leader of Hamas, said that the group would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The fact that a political leader of Hamas is even willing to make this statement is a strong indication of the effect of Israel's military and political vitality on the Arab world. Arabs may not like Israel, but since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, most recognize that it is here to stay, despite what their outdated charters may say.

Yet rather than take advantage of this statement and call Hamas' bluff, Israel, with the support of the American Jewish community, continues to hold the line that Arabs simply do not accept Israel's right to exist. To be sure, many fringe elements in the Middle East hold this position. But when ideological stubbornness costs Israel a strategic opportunity to improve security and human lives, it deserves scrutiny.

Neither the Israeli government, nor the Israel "lobby," nor the American Jews can be blamed solely for a collective inability to grasp the various complexities of the Middle East as they truly are. But each bears the responsibility to move forward from this regrettable condition. For 3000 years, Judaism has been based on nuance and subtlety. It should be these basic values which guide Jews and Israelis forward in the 21st century.