Monday, February 28, 2011

Who is a J Streeter?

It's almost insensitive to be blogging about J Street as a Middle East analyst considering the wide array of other topics from which to choose. The US today began sending aid teams to the Libyan border and moved American warships closer to Libya. Protests continue in Bahrain, where the parliament has now been blockaded. But the J Street Conference matters for the American Jewish community, and it matters for the Washington Middle East epistemic community as well. J Street's conference participants are a key indicator of where the organization stands, and where it is going.

The conference is having a profound impact on its participants. While those of us in DC eat, sleep, and breathe Middle East politics, the accountants, doctors, and teachers in attendance do not. Many of the participants expressed a sense of relief in being at the conference, where they could finally speak without self-censoring. They were curious to learn more about the movement, and excited to see they were not alone in their views.

Then there are the more extreme participants. Happy to have a captive audience to engage over breakfast or walking between panels, they were very outgoing and saw the array of panels and speakers less as a buffet of opinions and more as a kitchen for concocting support for their own ideas. In panels, they applaud and shout and boo freely and without reservation. They see no reason to do otherwise.

Somewhere in the middle of this are the college students. These young participants were generally there to listen and hear from the accomplished panelists they aspire to be someday. Not nearly as loud and rambunctious as the far-left crowd who are largely in their mid-50's or early 60's, they are a positive force in J Street, and it is clear why J Street is investing so much in its college organization J Street U. In a 5-10 year time period, these individuals will likely have a positive, moderating effect on the organization.

This will be a helpful asset in light of the challenges J Street will face. The strategic objective of the conference appears to be greater legitimacy for J Street. But today's panel on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions was a dangerous move for an organization consistently criticized as extreme and anti-Israel. Given J Street's clear stance against BDS, this would have been a perfect point against which to contrast in order to gain legitimacy. Instead, the conference highlighted not only a speaker from the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace, but also the extent to which many in its constituency are pro-BDS. At the end of the day, it's not clear J Street made any friends on either the right or left by hosting this panel. BDS is a no-fly zone in the pro-Israel camp. It's not a zone worth challenging.

Fair enough, J Street wanted to encourage a wide range of ideas. But J Street's policies and J Street's constituencies are not aligned. The organization supports diversity of opinion. Many in its constituency do not. They will not sit quietly when an Israeli MK tries to justify Israeli policy. They are not content to hold their tongue when a centrist speaker makes a point with which they disagree. The bottom line is this: at some point, J Street is going to have to make enemies on the far left if it hopes to maintain legitimacy as a centrist organization. Rabbi David Saperstein's comments on Saturday night about J Street were pushy, and were this not DC politics, rude. But he was right. And while J Street gained legitimacy at this conference having well-known, mainstream speakers and a well-executed conference, it loses that legitimacy entertaining those who find meaning in criticizing rather than offering alternatives.

J Street as an organization may be seeking a wide array of ideas. This is a legitimate objective. It is unclear that J Street's conference participants would agree. Strategically, it may be that J Street is opening its umbrella over the wrong head. In the end, the moderate center gets left out in the rain.

Tense BDS Session At J Street

There's currently a session at the J Street conference on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). While J Street opposes BDS, it's invited a representative from the Jewish Voice for Peace to speak in favor of partial BDS. The room is said to be full and the mood is tense. Cameras are prohibited.

The best twitter feeds to be following for this right now are

All of whom are in the room at the moment.

Ross' Tepid J Street Reception

Ambassador Dennis Ross was the featured speaker at this morning's plenary session at the J Street conference. Ross' remarks focused mostly on Egypt, noting that while "President Obama recognized that the government had to take immediate action," that "The US can't dictate how others can run their countries."

Ross also "strongly supported" the Bahraini government's national dialogue initiative, though he noted it was a "first step only."

Ross noted that "now is not the time to cut aid to Egypt," garnering the first round of applause from the audience. He ended his speech commenting on Iran. He noted that "Iran has exposed its own hypocrisy," and that "Iran's efforts to resist negotiations will only lead to more pressure."

Immediately following Ross' comments and a brief Q and A with J Street board member Mort Halperin, a panel convened to discuss his comments. Moderated by Middle East Institute VP Kate Seelye, it included economist Bernard Avishai, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, and Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation. While Seelye's demeanor was her usual calm cool and professional, her panelists made no secret of their scorn for the Ambassador's comments. Bernard Avishai called for "More Dr. Kissinger and less Dr. Phil," equating neutral moderation by the US to therapy. Roger Cohen chastised Ambassador Ross for "sitting through five administrations but not an hour and a half of debate," and was clear about his view that "the Israeli repsonse has been extremely disappointing. Daniel Levy played to the crowd, noting, "Legitimacy and the removal of anxiety will only come when we no longer are denying another people its freedom."

The trio called for better American leadership as the solution. They generally supported Obama but called for him to go further in pushing Israel to a final status agreement.

The audience at the event was respectful of Ambassador Ross, but was clearly more supportive of the panel's views. There was no awkwardness at this particular panel, but neither was there resounding support for the Ambassador.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

J Street Day 2

Panels and plenary sessions ruled the second day of the J Street conference. the organization brought in a number of well respected speakers who contributed a variety of viewpoints to an audience who was not afraid to voice its opinion on those viewpoints.
One such panel was an afternoon session on "resolving the Middle East conflict as a core national security interest," featuring CAP senior fellow Brian Katulis, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, and APN's Lara Friedman. Katulis took the broad view, arguing that the prolonged conflict impacted US interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. Col. Wilkerson, adding color commentary, made clear his axe to grind with the US government in general and the Bush administration in particular. He proudly proclaimed that he had "voted for Obama, and I'm a Republican." Lara Friedman took a policy-focused, metered approach. She was the subject matter expert of the three, and her understanding was nuanced, if decidedly liberal. Of the three, she also pushed the point hardest that the problem was not only a "failure of leadership," but that pragmatically, a peace agreement was a security interest of the United States. Katulis largely concurred with Friedman that "the one-state solution isn't a solution to anything."

The afternoon's plenary session involved 5 members of Knesset, including 4 from Kadima and one from Labor. In addition to enjoying the warm camaraderie and friendly teasing between the MPs, the panel was also very informative on the future of Israeli politics. While moderator Barbara Slavin made little effort to mask her personal beliefs, she asked compelling and pointed questions, steering away from any softballs.

For the audience, the split highlighted the difference between J Street's moderate and radical factions. This was not an audience which wanted to hear about delegitimization, or about Gilad Shalit. MK Nachman Shai, who was representing the Kadima party position, did his best to present a position largely considered moderate to a comfortably left audience. But his alienation by the end was awkward. He was chastised as an Israeli for Israeli policies by American Jews. J Street as an organization clearly has made efforts to include a broad spectrum of views. But this norm has not penetrated to its constituents. This may continue to pose a problem for J Street as it seeks to legitimize and center itself as a policy organization. While far left activists may be great organizers, they also may pose a liability to an organization seeking to present itself as mainstream, not without challenge.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Round Two: Analysis of the J Street Conference

While it is hard to make inferences from only a few hours of conference (see the post below for more details), tonight's program shows that J Street is maturing as an organization.

Tonight's program was largely content one would expect from a serious policy organization, rather than a small outsider group trying to knock its way into the Washington policy arena. While a bit of healthy liberal indignance remains part of the organization's talking points, the general tone set by J Street's staff tonight was generally moderate and reasonable. No doubt, those in attendance from the right will find plenty at fault with Jeremy Ben Ami's direct criticism of AIPAC, the AJC, and the ADL. They will certainly take issue with the simplistic presentation of the very complex legal issues in Sheikh Jarrah (which was not necessarily Ms. Benninga's responsibility to explain).

Yet despite these misgivings, J Street's opening plenary session was technically flawless, with the timed precision of a broadway play, and a carefully crafted message. Bringing in high profile speakers versus the last conference's voices from among the activists was the correct choice. Big names like Peter Beinart add legitimacy to J Street as an organization, and inspire activist audiences. They also appeal to the many policy folk in attendance.

J Street also made it a huge point to recognize its student delegations. The organization has invested significant time and effort into J Street U, though its independence on campus has sometimes landed J Street in trouble in Washington. Yet J Street U President Moriel Rothman spoke eloquently and passionately, even if his passions did not align with the more centrist tone of Rachel Lerner and Jeremy Ben-Ami.

Criticism by Rabbi David Saperstein of the RAC no doubt raised some pulses, especially as only the second speech of the evening. Given the semi-controvery over Reform Movement Head Rabbi Eric Yoffee from last year, this "hate-that-I-love-you" relationship between the Reform Jewish Movement and J Street is nothing new. However, the content of Saperstein's comments were dead on. Rabbi Saperstein is correct that being moderate most of the time will give J Street leverage to take a stark position when it really matters, and that radicalism can alienate those with power in Washington. Most attendees will likely spurn these comments, but more moderate attendees likely appreciated his candid, frank assessment. President Ben Ami, for his part, was gracious in accepting these criticisms.

As the conference goes on, it will be interesting to see whether the moderate thrust of tonight's comments are reflected in the viewpoints of the attendees at the conference. While the last conference had something of a hippie-Jewish vibe, this time around was more policy oriented. There appeared to be more men in suits, and the exchange of business cards and mid-sentence glances at Blackberries were much more common. Questions asked at tomorrow's panels will shed light on whether this is in fact the case.

J Street Conference Kicks Off in DC

The 2nd annual J Street Conference kicked off this evening at the Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington DC. The conference boasted 30 participating organizations who were joined by informal delegations from Windows, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, and a number of other organizations. Together they comprised 2000 conference attendees, among them 500 students. The attendees still largely represented the young/old dichotomy of the first conference, but noticeably less so this time around. The tone of the event, more so than last time, had the aura of a serious policy conference.

Opening the event, J Street VP Rachel Lerner stressed the idea of J Street as a community, versus other organizations as "institutions meant to speak for us." Her message took an overall centrist tone, but still expressed "confusion" over support for J Street translating into betrayal of the American Jewish community.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the night was the speech by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Action Committee (RAC). Rabbi Saperstein began his speech with a rousing call to social justice heavily rooted in a religious call to action. However, roughly halfway into his speech, Saperstein criticized J Street's tendency to appeal to its radical base rather than centrists in Washington. He noted that if J Street "alienates the center, it risks losing everything." The room was noticeably filled with an awkward silence as Saperstein criticized J Street's choice not to support a US veto of last week's UN settlement resolution. He also called for J Street to stand united with other Jewish/Israel organizations against Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (which J Street currently does oppose).

Taking Saperstein's comments in stride, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami characterized J Street as a "liberal political voice on Israel." This is a shift from previous characterizations which took on a more centrist tone. However, Ben Ami noted five J Street principles, all of which fall into roughly centrist terms. The organization:

1) Reaffirms of the right of the Jewish people to a national home of their own.
2) Contends that being pro-Israel doesn't have to mean being anti-Palestinian.
3) Contends Israel supporters have an obligation to speak out if they think policies are hurting Israel.
4) Vibrant respectful debate is good for the American Jewish community.
5) Its work is grounded in Jewish values.

The leaders of J Street U, the organization's on-campus organization, then presented lists of all of the campuses represented at the conference. J Street took meticulous care to recognize students as much as possible throughout the evening.

From there, 3 speakers presented their views on Israel. They included noted author and liberal thinker Peter Beinart of the New Republic, Sara Benninga of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, and Dr. Izzeldin Abulaish who lost three daughters and a niece in Operation Cast Lead. Beinart's comments were eloquent and reflected a mastery of the written word. Benninga's comments were piercing and the stuff of activists. Her radicalism was tempered by Dr. Abulaish, whose remarks reflected a theme of freedom. He ended with a call for hope, and peace in the Middle East.

J Street Conference 2011

As sunset falls on Washington, the lights are coming up on the 2011 J Street Conference. Founded in April 2008, J Street is a closely watched organization both in Israel and the United States. Since its last conference in October 2009, the organization has gained both legitimacy and stirred controversy. Israel activists, scholars, writers, and journalists will be watching the Washington Convention Center very closely over the next week.

The speaker line up for this year includes a notably higher policy focus. Well respected individuals from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Project on Middle East Democracy are among the panelists. The speakers will also include Imam Feisal Rauf, known for his leadership of the Park51 Project to build a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, and Maen Areikat, Chief Representative of the PLO in the United States.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Next 72 Hours

Three major developments will occur in the next 72 hours with regards to the Middle East as a whole:

1) The US will complete its evacuation of citizens from Libya. This will allow the administration to take a much harder line against the violence in Libya because the threat to American citizens will be significantly lessened. Additionally, tomorrow is likely to see larger protests than today given that it is the Muslim sabbath, and the time taken to organize the protests.

2) Iraq may see major demonstrations. There has been activity in Iraq's north, its capital, and its south. Organizers have been planning a major demonstration for tomorrow, which may be significant compared to activity thus far.

3) Here in Washington, J Street will be opening its 2nd annual conference. You can find coverage and updates here, as I'll be blogging the conference highlights from here in Washington DC.

Summary of Gaddafi Comments

About 20 minutes ago, Muammar Gaddafi called into a TV show and spoke on the air. He was decidedly calmer than in his last speech, but his comments were no less decipherable.

- Gaddafi blamed al-Qaeda and Bin Laden for leading the problem. He said "They are launching a campaign against your children, telling them not to listen to the parents." He added "All al-Qaeda wants is to kill your kids so they can have control. They should be happy now."
- Gaddafi compared himself to Queen Elizabeth, who does not have the power to issue laws. This, Gaddafi claims is just like his situation.
- Gaddafi noted, "I dont have the authority to impose or enforce or impose rules on the people. I have become more of a symbolic leader."
- He said that Popular Committees should look after imposing law and the rule of order.
- He offered "condolences to the 4 people killed in the security forces and their families. I wonder if Bin Laden will compensate them."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Obama's Speech: Immediate After-Thoughts

1) This was the real Obama. He wasn't using dramatic pauses or voice intonation. The President is personally invested in the well being of Libyans, and this came across in his speech.

2) He focused on multilateral approaches. Obama made the issue the response of the international community, mentioning a number of multilateral organizations by name in his statement. This shows that the US understands the complexity of the situation and the need for the US to keep a low profile.

3) Resonance with viewers. Obama ended his speech discussing the universal rights of all human beings. This is the rhetoric which concerned constituents have been waiting to hear. Saying that the US will be committed to "justice" is also is a standard for the administration which it will be held to.

4) Vague on policy options. Obama said "all options were on the table" but didn't commit to a single course of action. People will be looking to the White House for specific actions in the next 24-48 hours, and the Obama administration will have to demonstrate leadership on the issue.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Impose a No-Fly Zone in Libya

At least 300 people have been killed so far in the violence in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi's statements today included rhetoric such as, "come out of your homes and attack them in their dens" and "anyone who undermines the state will be punished by death." Gaddafi also referred to the protesters as "drug addicts" and "rats," and implied he could use violence at the level of Tiananmen Square or Waco.

Gaddafi's threats are credible and real. There is an imminent danger that Gaddafi will order action in which innocent civilians are lethally targeted.

Already, this threat has been actualized. Protesters have been targeted by anti-aircraft missiles, artillery and mercenaries. If left unchecked, the lethality of Gaddafi's tactics may increase. It in the interest of the United States and the International Community to take steps that will prevent mass casualty attacks on Libyan civilians. Credibility in the region will depend on being on the right side of history. We and our values lost credibility over Rwanda and Darfur. Let us not lose it over Libya.

The United States should support, in the United Nations, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya by order of the UN Security Council. Imposition of a no-fly zone will mean that Libyan aircraft cannot target civilians. Private mercenaries will also be unable to fly into Libya. The no-fly zone should meet the following conditions:

1) It will be enforced multilaterally.
2) Pilots violating the no-fly zone will be given a chance to defect rather than carry out their mission. Given the high levels of defection, it is important that pilots are not being sent up on suicide missions, and that antagonism of the Libyan army is minimized.
3) There will be a time limit, in months, of the duration of the no-fly zone. This will prevent it from becoming permanent, draining resources and prolonging the violation of Libyan sovereignty.
4) Humanitarian aid will be allowed to fly in. Evacuations of foreign citizens, diplomatic personnel, and medical casualties will be allowed to fly out.

The US is currently remaining relatively quiet, according to sources with eyes and ears in the White House, in order to facilitate the successful evacuation of American citizens from the country. In the meantime, however, the US can work covertly to shore up support for the resolution from Russia and China, who may veto it.

Imposition of a no fly zone is a controversial tactic which should not be used except in extreme cases, and in particular, cases where an imminent threat exists to many human lives.

The situation in Libya is such a case.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya and Learning

Analysts who know far more about Libya than your humble blogger have noted that Libya's response to protests have been largely aimed towards the West rather than the Libyan people. From the beginning, media coverage from inside Libya has been extremely limited. Seif el-Islam Ghaddafi's speech last night made reference to bloodshed in terms indicating it may have been a threat to the West to withdraw condemnation. The fact that Ghaddafi is scheduled to speak this evening at around 2am Libya time may indicate that his comments are intended for a Western audience rather than for the Libyan people.

This would represent a significant change from Tunisia and Egypt, in which both leaders spoke largely to their own people, although they certainly made reference to "conspiracies" from the international community. Ghaddafi may be trying to draw the West in with the intent of offloading some of the frustration of protesters from himself. However, this is highly unlikely to be effective, as al-Jazeera has far more credibility in the Arab world than does Muamar Ghaddafi.

Nonetheless, the development is a case of "learning" by an authoritarian regime seeking to stay in power. Libyan protesters have learned from their brethren in Tunisia and Egypt, but regimes throughout the region are watching closely as well, adjusting their policies accordingly. Whether or not the learning will be effective, however, remains to be seen.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Libya Too?

UPDATE 6:00 pm: Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi, rumored to have been shot, is currently speaking on al-Jazeera, and appears to be fine.


If you're not watching al-Jazeera right now, you should
click here to tune in. The situation in Libya is now critical.

Reporting out of Libya is extremely tenuous because of media restrictions, and most of the stories are unconfirmed rumors. Rumors have emerged that Ghaddafi's more moderate son, Saif el-Islam, has been shot in a gunfight with his more extremist brother Muatassim. Ghaddafi is rumored to have left the country. The rumors themselves are completely unconfirmed.

It is significant, however, that al-Jazeera is reporting these unconfirmed rumors. They are actively intervening in the narrative to push Ghaddafi out of the leadership position he has held since 1969. In many ways, this is an "Al-Jazeera revolution" in that their broadcasts have been critical to swaying international public support, forcing governments to respond, and pressuring Arab leaders to leave. King Khalifa of Bahrain should beware. This, however, is not to diminish the clearly central role played by Libyans and Bahrainis over the past few days, many of whom have been injured and killed. They have sacrificed terribly in the name of the freedom that we take for granted here in the United States. If Ghaddafi leaves, it will be their victory.

And the US needs to get in front of this wave, laying the groundwork for a relationship with Libya post-Ghaddafi.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

UN Veto Criticism: What Does the US do Now?

Disappointment has surfaced in the Palestinian Territories over the US veto of a UN security council resolution condemning settlement building as "illegal." Earlier today, a top Fatah official, Tawfik Terawi called for a "day of rage" next Friday against the United States, condemning the US as "liars who pretend to support democracy and peace."

While the harsh criticism does not come from the Palestinian Authority itself, the linkage of days of rage and the veto is a turning point. While most Americans will not draw an immediate linkage between US policy towards Egypt and the UN resolution veto, many in the Arab world may do so. This may create a downturn in Arab attitudes towards the US and the Obama administration, which many Arabs feel has not followed through in their hour of need.

Given the complexity of the entire situation in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, caution on Washington's part is warranted. However, the administration must continue to walk a fine line between becoming a lightning rod for the frustration of protesters and upholding its stated commitment to democracy and peace.

To successfully navigate the firestorm in the Middle East, the administration must:

1) Take the long-term view. The nuanced policies of the administration thus far indicate that it is indeed looking ahead into the future. Tensions may be high now, but running to one side or the other too quickly could prove problematic for US policy a year or five years from now.

2) Be realistic about the chances for democratic reform. The administration is doing this as well. It is unlikely that every protest will be successful. Protesters learn from their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, but authoritarian leaders learn too. The violence in Bahrain and today in Libya is clear evidence that these leaders are not waiting around to be pushed out of office.

3) Take a strong stand when Arab leaders cross red lines. Now that the protests are widespread, the administration can criticize in a general way and spend less capital on the risk of alienating specific leaders who may not actually be going anywhere. Covertly, the administration should also make clear to leaders that violently targeting peaceful protesters will have economic repercussions for their regimes. Reports suggest that President Obama is personally invested in the plight of these protesters. The administration should leverage that investment to pressure leaders using repressive and violent tactics.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Critical Juncture for the Middle East?

The foreign policy community in DC is spending considerable time and effort trying to judge what is going to happen in the rapidly unfolding situations in Libya, Algeria, and Bahrain. Bahrain is of particular concern given the country's small size, last night's miscalculated use of force at 3am against sleeping and mostly unarmed protesters, and the fact that Bahrain is home to the US 5th Fleet.

With all the turmoil, it's hard to keep track of what the situation is where. It's even harder to settle on a paradigm for judging these events.

Given the highly unexpected regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, the Middle East may be in a "critical juncture" in which the basic "rules" of the status quo are changed in response to an exogenous shock. In this case, the shock would be the deposition of both President Ben Ali and President Mubarak in only 2 months' time. Some have suggested this may be the beginnings of a new "wave of democratization" sweeping the Middle East.

The problem is, it's sometime's hard to tell if you're in a critical juncture. In some cases (Pearl Harbor, 9/11) it is beyond clear that the shock to the system will change policy. There is no question that Mubarak's ouster represents a critical juncture to the Egyptian domestic political system. But whether the authoritarianism which has gripped the Middle East for a century is due for a change is more difficult to answer. Only time will tell.

For academics, excellent note-taking skills are in order. For policymakers, the events in Libya, Algeria, and Bahrain are a yellow light. That a critical juncture is even possible at present is itself significant. But despite pressure or wishful thinking, policymakers should proceed with caution when crafting policy responses. Because the answer to whether or not this is part of a wave of democratization is: we simply don't yet know.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why The US Will Veto the UN Settlement Resolution

The US is working to prevent a vote or amend language on a UN Security Council bill condemning Israeli settlements. The US has hinted that should the bill come to the floor for a vote, as it is expected to do Friday, they will veto it.

Given that the US' stated policy is against settlement building, some have expressed confusion about the decision to veto. However, there are three major reasons the Obama administration is pursuing this policy.

1) They've learned to pick battles. In the wake of the generally defunct peace talks from late last year, the Obama administration has become much more cautious about the fights it picks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Especially as the 2012 campaign begins to spool up, the cost of annoying Israel and the American Jewish community is not worth the benefit of sticking to the stated policy.

2) It gives the US an out with both Israel and the Palestinians. Offering to negotiate leaves the door open for the Palestinians. Threatening to veto save for an amendment leaves the door open for Israel. Furthermore, it leaves all sides with their dignity intact.

3) Destabilizing any more Middle East relationships would be a bad choice. Given today's violence in Bahrain, protests across the Arab world, and the awkward position the US finds itself in having supported a number of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, the US needs all the friends it can get. I also suspect there is heavy intelligence sharing between the US and Israel right now regarding these protests. Making a difficult situation even more difficult by picking a fight with a stable and close Middle East ally like Israel would therefore be a sub-optimal policy choice.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Egypt in the Israeli Press

In the wake of the protests and ouster of President Mubarak, a rigorous and healthy debate has emerged in Israel about whether the events bode favorably or unfavorably for Israel. The debate has fallen rather predictably along party lines, with liberals speaking generally positively, and conservatives voicing healthy and well-reasoned concern.

For a country with Israel's security posture and siege mentality to be engaging in such a debate is a credit to the Israeli people and to Israeli society. With an active security threat from Gaza, weapons and drug smuggling through the Sinai, and growing international pressure, the country could be expected to be largely pessimistic. While pessimism exists, however, the Israeli press is entertaining a curious optimism that perhaps democracy in Egypt wouldn't be so bad, and could even be good for Israel.

As discussion continues in the region, another discussion is about to open up here in Washington. J Street will be holding its second annual conference beginning this Saturday evening. I have been granted press credentials as editor of this blog, and will be blogging the conference. I look forward to an exchange of ideas which is similarly earnest and honest.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On Mubarak's Resignation

President Mubarak's speech on Thursday was confusing. Fractures between the negotiation parties were beginning to appear and things in Tahrir Square had remained intense but relatively stable. Watching the speech just before a class, I literally said, "What is he doing?" out loud to the screen. In the back of my mind was a conspiracy theory that Mubarak had worked out an arrangement with the army to make a speech and then be forced out. That turned out not to be totally true, but not totally wrong either.

After blogging and tweeting non-stop about Egypt, I heard the news of Mubarak's resignation the next day via text from a good friend. I was on a bus and without a laptop or internet connection. It wasn't until we came to a rest stop that I had a chance to watch the dramatic pictures. Others in the rest stop were gathered around the TV which was showing pictures from Tahrir Square, and piping in the voices of al-Jazeera anchors in tears. Even these travelers grabbing some lunch at a rest stop in southern New Jersey were moved by this demonstration.

As an excellent Washington Post article describes, Mubarak's speech had not been cleared by the military. He spoke only for himself, and only hastened his own downfall. My original miscalculation, that such a speech could only make sense as part of a deal, underestimated just how powerful and autonomous Mubarak was. Maybe he was just delusional. Maybe he wanted to appear forced out by an impatient army. But either way, his final speech demonstrates just how powerful a head of state he was.

As the transition moves forward, we should not overestimate the challenges which lie ahead in creating a democratic Egypt. But we also should not underestimate the agency shown by the Egyptian people, and the great potential they have already demonstrated to themselves, to the Arab peninsula, and to the world.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Or not!

Thursday, February 10, 2011



Mubarak to Step Down

President Mubarak is expected to announce his resignation as Egypt's president after 30 years of rule in about 25 minutes from now. It appears that a military coup has occurred in Egypt and Omar Suleiman will be taking power from here.

This is an historic day in the history of Egypt and the history of the Middle East. Generations of students will study the event which is about to take place.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Egypt Coverage: Don't Blame the US Media

The DC Middle East policy wonk community took particular pleasure over the past few weeks in bashing Western coverage of the protests in Egypt. Twitter post after Twitter post bemoaned the lack of proper coverage here in the US of the events rapidly unfolding in al-Tahrir square.

A new study from the Pew Research Center, however, demonstrates that at least as a function of viewer interest, Western media coverage of the protests was relatively high. The survey claims that while 32% of the public followed protests in Egypt last week, the protests accounted for 56% of the media coverage in the same time period.

The social scientist side of me questions the inherent correlation between these two variables. It wouldn't make sense for a news outlet to have coverage relative to the percent of Americans interested for two reasons.

1) Not all Americans pay attention to these sources, so media outlets aren't attuning coverage to people who aren't going to read or tune in anyway.

2) The 32% of Americans interested in Egypt may have watched a disproportionately high number of hours of television. So only 32% may have been watching, but they may have been watching for more hours. In which case the 56% coverage wouldn't be a disparity at all.

But despite this murky relationship, 56% is still very a high percentage of coverage, accounting for a higher percentage of the news than the week of the Haiti earthquake, Iran protests, and Operation Cast Lead.

So perhaps our little epistemic community here in DC is slightly biased in our extreme interest in all things Middle East. And perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to jump to conclusions about our friends in the press.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Plea for Radical Moderation

I don't support the Jewish Voice for Peace.

Their call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions is misled and will harm Israel and the cause of peace. Their grouping of the occupation with bigotry is a gross oversimplification of the myriad of factors which play into both.

But I also don't support the childish and shocking antics of whomever, this morning, decided to place a "wanted" sign on the JVP Los Angeles chapter leader's front porch. The sign accused JVP chapter leader Estee Chandler of treason, consorting with anti-semites, and inciting further violence against the State of Israel. The sign ends by mentioning Ms. Chandler's niece and nephew. By name.

Evidently, this is the tone of the Israel debate in America in February 2011. That someone would go to the point of intimidation and trespassing to stifle debate speaks to the desperation of those responsible and those who support them.

But there is a bigger picture. While JVP and the center-left pro-Israel camp are quite distinct, such actions have a chilling effect across the spectrum. Today's attack is an attack on the moderate majority of Israel supporters, left right, and center. It is clear and undeniable.

And it is unacceptable.

Our moderate community of Israel supporters is held hostage by those on the radical fringes, left and right, who would rather engage in petty frat-boy antics like today's "wanted" sign than engage in a problem where human lives are at stake. All the hours and money we spend fighting with each other about who is more harmful to Israel could be better spent fighting the immediate threat of physical harm which those who live in the Israel and the Palestinian territories face every day.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Defense of J Street's Birthright Trip

An Open Letter to Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark:

Dear Mr. Mark,

The J Street Birthright trip issue is causing you headaches because of a simple fact: Jewish support for Israel is political. Supporting Israel means supporting a real live country, one which you and your organization work so hard and effectively to promote. But explaining Israeli security, the importance of a Jewish state, and the social dynamics of the country to 18-26 year-olds requires delving into politics. Birthright participants are smart. They ask questions. We give answers.

Sometimes these answers come from more conservative organizations like AIPAC, StandWithUs, and the Zionist Organization of America. Sometimes they come from more liberal organizations like the New Israel Fund and the Union of Progressive Zionists. Yet what these organizations seek, more than partisan foot soldiers, is engagement. Engaging with Israel requires engaging with its politics. Contributing to Israel's solutions means understanding its problems. Loving Israel requires doing so despite occupation, discrimination, and mistakes which characterize the struggle of all liberal democracies.

Mr. Mark, putting obstacles in front of a J Street Birthright trip is more than inconsistent; it is actively harmful to Israel-diaspora relations. At a time when our young generation is struggling to grasp the implications of Israel's history for its own era, many are simply abandoning Israel altogether. Engaging in Israel from the left, right, or center should not preclude 18-26 year-olds from engaging altogether. Whether religious or secular, student or professional, left or right, the imperative of Birthright cuts across these divisions with one clear message: You need to see it for yourself.

This is one message on which we can agree.

I strongly urge reconsideration of J Street's trip, and working with them to make this trip a reality.

**The Confused Sheikh**
Birthright Peer Leader, Trip SA-18-249
June 2008

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Does Obama do Now?

One of the policy questions surrounding Egypt the past week or so has been: Where is the red line at which the Obama administration openly would seek Mubarak's ouster? Given today's events, Mubarak is walking on thin ice.

The targeting of unarmed civilians and journalists, including American journalists, crosses a line. Reports at the moment are that machine gun fire is erupting in al-Tahrir Square. For the more cynical, it is surprising that this crackdown didn't come sooner. Such a response is typical an authoritarian regime. Coming so late, it demonstrates a last ditch effort by President Mubarak to hold on to power.

So what should the administration do?

Already it has used strong language against the violence, saying it "strongly condemns the outrageous and deplorable violence that's taken place on the streets of Cairo." The statement places no blame on Mubarak. However, the administration is likely trying to avoid getting entangled in the story. If they do, two bad things will happen:

1) They will get blamed for anything that goes wrong
2) They will shift the story away from Mubarak

At the moment, the US is playing only a secondary role in this drama, and it is in its interest to keep things that way. Still, the administration must be careful not to look like it is tacitly condoning Mubarak's brutal tactics as the situation escalates in the next few days.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Well Done, Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed Israel's position on Egypt today after a joint cabinet meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His major points, all roughly aligned with US policy, were:

1. Ensuring the preservation of Israeli-Egyptian peace
2. Support for liberal democratic rights
3. Peaceful resolution to the crisis such that stability is restored

Bibi walks a fine line here, making nuanced statements and addressing the myriad audiences who will be picking apart his every word. The statement is pretty much an A+.