Friday, February 29, 2008

An Insider's Report on Barack Obama's Meeting with Cleveland Jewish Leaders

Dear friends and family,

I've received so many questions over the last month about Barack Obama, his positions on Israel, and his relationship with the Jewish community. I've been deeply troubled by smears directed at Obama - claiming that he is a Muslim, suggesting that he is anti-Semitic, or implying that he is anti-Israel. On Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with Obama and a small group of Jews in Cleveland, during which Obama answered questions about these smears and discussed a wide range of issues that are critically important to the Jewish community.

Because I think it's important to know where Obama stands on all of this, I wrote up this report.

Please feel free to forward it widely.

Obama walked in the room at Landerhaven banquet hall shortly after 9 a.m. and was greeted with a warm ovation. There were about 100 Jewish leaders in the room, some supporting Obama, some not. Ron Ratner, who organized the event, was the first to speak. He said he had been supporting Obama for eight months, and had literally "given him his first-born son," Matt, who worked on the campaign.

Next to speak was Congressman Robert Wexler, who represents a district including Boca Raton, Florida, with 300,000 Jews. He spoke enthusiastically about Obama, saying he was a "unique person" who would deliver on a "moderate progressive agenda," mentioning health care, the environment, and the economy as key issues. He said Obama was a "stalwart supporter of the state of Israel," with a conviction that Israel needs to maintain its "military advantage." Obama, he said, unequivocally understands "America's heartfelt and long-term friendship with Israel." He cited a letter sent by Obama in January to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urging the U.N. to fully condemn Hamas (In that letter, Obama wrote: "The Security Council should clearly and unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks against Israel, and should make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against such actions. If it cannot bring itself to make these common sense points, I urge you to ensure that it does not speak at all." (Here's a New Jersey Jewish Standard article about the letter:

Wexler also noted that Obama was one of the first U.S. Senators to express U.S. support for Israel during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. After Obama spoke at a recent AIPAC conference, Wexler said, he sought out Bibi Netanyahu, and the two discussed ways to isolate Iran, economically. (AIPAC has stressed that it is satisfied with Obama's positions on the Middle East; a spokeswoman recently told the New Republic: "Like all the leading presidential candidates, the senator has a strong record on issues of importance to the pro-Israel community.") Wexler noted that Obama is the lead sponsor of legislation, currently pending in the Senate, promoting divestment from Iran. (The legislation would "provide needed information about which companies are supporting Iran's energy industry, clarify that state and local governments have the authority to divest of such companies, and provide legal protection for those governments that wish to do so.") He mentioned an article by New Republic editor Martin Peretz, a staunch and long-time supporter of Israel, arguing that Obama has it absolutely right on Israel. ("Can Friends of Israel -- and Jews -- trust Obama? In a Word, Yes." Read the article here:

Wexler said Obama would promote a two-state solution in the Middle East, and understands that we can not "unilaterally ask Israel to make concessions."
He concluded with a flourish: "Obama had the wisdom of judgment to oppose the Iraq war, and to oppose the nomination of Alberto Gonzales. He fully appreciates that what is needed to be done is to change the ideology of Washington that permitted the war in the first place."

Obama took the podium, and, again, was greeted with a warm ovation. He started by thanking Ratner, and then ackowledged Mark Dann, "your terrific attorney general," and his wife, Alyssa, who were in the audience. He said he was thankful for the "support of so many friends in the Jewish community, dating back to my first days in public life in Chicago." He mentioned the late Chicago businessman and philanthropist Irving Harris as an early supporter, and noted that the "strong support of the Jewish community" in Chicago has been vital to his political success.

Obama next spoke generally about issues of importance to him, including health care, the need for an energy policy that "not only creates jobs and secures our planet but also stops sending billions of dollars to dictators and effectively leads us to fund both sides of the war on terror," and a change in foreign policy, beginning with ending the war in Iraq.
"These changes are founded in a view of the world that I believe is deeply imbedded in the Jewish tradition," Obama said, "That all of us have a responsibility to do our part to repair the world. That we can take care of one another and build strong communities grounded in faith and family. That repairing the world is a task that each of us is called upon to take up every single day."

He then said that he will carry with him to the White House "an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people ...I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries."

Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it "left a lasting impression on me."
"Seeing the terrain," Obama said, "experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.
"And I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected with a mandate to pursue it. I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will strengthen Israel's security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side-by-side in peace and security, with Israel's status as a Jewish state ensured, so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams."

He continued: "I also expect to work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies who are intent on its destruction. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes, we saw their intentions with the Katusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006, and we see it today in the Kasams that Hamas fires into Israel every single day from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The defense cooperation between the United States and Israel has been a model of success and I believe it can be deepened and strengthened."

He went on to say that "the gravest threat ... to Israel today I believe is from Iran," noting that the "radical regime" is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.
"President Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust and disturbing denunciations of Israel," Obama said. "He recently referred to Israel as a deadly microbe and a savage animal. Threats of Israel's destruction cannot be dismissed as rhetoric. The threat from Iran is real and my goal as president would be to eliminate that threat.
"Ending the war in Iraq, I believe, will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake: I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that.

"My approach to Iran," he continued, "will be aggressive diplomacy. I will not take any military options off the table. But I also believe that under this administration we have seen the threat grow worse and I intend to change that course. The time I believe has come to talk directly to the Iranians and to lay out our clear terms: their end of pursuit of nuclear weapons, an end of their support of terrorism, and an end of their threat to Israel and other countries in the region.

"To prepare this goal I believe that we need to present incentives, carrots, like the prospect of better relations and integration into the national community, as well as disincentives like the prospect of increased sanctions. I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN, and I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States has shown itself to be willing to come to the table."

He added: "We have not pursued the kind of aggressive and direct diplomacy that could yield results to both Israel and the United States. The current policy of not talking is not working."

All told, he spoke for about eight minutes. Then, he opened the floor to questions.
The first questioner asked about Obama's affiliation with his church in Chicago, and his Reverend, Jeremiah Wright. The questioner asked if Obama was still a member, noting that Rev. Wright has preached anti-Israel sermons, and that the pastor has a close relationship with Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam.

Obama started by describing his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, to which he has belonged for 20 years. It's a "very conventional" African-American church, he said. If you go on a given Sunday, you hear gospel music and "people preaching about Jesus."
He then said: "It is true that my Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who will be retiring this month, is somebody who on occasion can say controversial things. Most of them by the way are controversial directed at the African American Community and calling on them start reading books and turn off the TV set and engage in self help. And he is very active in prison ministries and so forth.

"It's also true that he comes out of the 60s, he is an older man. That is where he cut his teeth. That he has historically been interested in the African roots of the African-American experience. He was very active in the South Africa divestment movement and you will recall that there was a tension that arose between the African American and the Jewish communities during that period when we were dealing with apartheid in South Africa, because Israel and South Africa had a relationship at that time."
Obama said that relationship was "a source of tension" for his pastor.
"So there have been a couple of occasions where he made comments with relation, rooted in that," Obama said. "Not necessarily ones that I share. But that is the context within which he has made those comments."

Obama went on to say that Wright does not have close relationship with Farrakhan.
"I have been a consistent, before I go any further, denunciator of Louis Farrakhan, nobody challenges that." (Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, confirms this. Here is a link to an Anti-Defamation League statement, praising Obama's condemnations of Farrakhan:

Noting that Farrakhan was given an award, in 2007, by the Church's magazine (for his work on behalf of ex-offenders), Obama said: "I believe that was a mistake and showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community and I said so. But I have never heard an anti-Semitic [comment] made inside of our church. I have never heard anything that would suggest anti-Semitism on part of the Pastor. He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with."

Obama went on to talk more broadly about the relationship between blacks and Jews, saying: "the point I make is this: that I understand the concerns and the sensitivities and one of my goals constantly in my public career has been to try to bridge what was a historically powerful bond between the African American and Jewish communities that has been frayed in recent years. For a whole variety of reasons. I think that I have served as an effective bridge and that's the reason I have overwhelming support among the Jewish community that knows me best, which is the Jewish community in Chicago."

Then, returning to the question of his pastor, and repeating that his pastor is retiring this month, Obama said: "this is always a sensitive point, what you don't want to do is distance yourself or kick somebody away because you are now running for president and you are worried about perceptions, particularly when someone is basically winding down their life and their career."
(The Anti-Defamation League confirms that there is no evidence of anti-Semitism from Wright. For a recent JTA article examining Obama's positions on all of this, see "ADL leader says Obama has Settled Farrakhan Issue":

The second questioner asked Obama about emails that have circulated, suggesting he's a Muslim. Obama called the emails "virulent"; they started early in the campaign, he said, and have come out in waves, "magically appear[ing]" in states before primaries and caucuses. They contend that Obama is a Muslim, that he went to a madrass, that he used a Koran to swear himself into the Senate, and/or that he doesn't pledge allegiance to the flag.
"If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim," he said. "We had to send CNN to look at the school that I attended in Indonesia where kids were wearing short pants and listening to ipods to indicate that this was not a madrassa but was a secular school in Indonesia."

The next questioner asked about the reports that Obama's advisors included Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter's national security advisor) and several others perceived as anti-Israel.
"There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the U.S. and Israel should be interacting," Obama said. "It has evolved over time." Obama said that when Brzezinksi was national security advisor, he would not have been considered outside the mainstream of that spectrum. Noting that Brzezinski "is now considered by many in the Jewish community anathema," Obama said: "I know Brzezinski. He's not one of my key advisors. I've had lunch with him once, I've exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce me for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan ... I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally."
He went on to say that the other advisors who he's been criticized for having on his staff are former members of the Clinton administration. He mentioned Tony Lake, the former national security adviser, and Susan Rice, the former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.

"These are people who strongly believe in Israel's right to exist. Strongly believe in a two-state solution. Strongly believe that the Palestinians have been irresponsible and have been strongly critical of them. [They] share my view that Israel has to remain a Jewish state, that the US has a special relationship with the Jewish state."

He then departed, a bit, from the topic of his advisors, and spoke more generally. "This is where I get to be honest and I hope I'm not out of school here," he said. "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress."
He took issue with commentators who suggest that talk of anything less than "crushing the opposition" is "being soft or anti-Israel."
"[If] we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel" in ways that are "non-military," he said, then "I think we're going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about."

He pointed out that none of the emails about his advisors mention people on the other side such as Lester Crown, a member of Obama's national finance committee, "considered about as hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country."
"So, there's got to be some balance here," he said. "I've got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bipartisan consensus ... in terms of being pro-Israel. There's never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think it's important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people's concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israel lobby has raised, but he's not one of my central advisers."

He then noted that there has been a "fairly systemic effort" by Hillary Clinton's campaign to "feed these suspicions" about his advisors, citing a new Newsweek article documenting the effort. (Read the article here: )

The next question was sort of a follow-up. Given your range of advisors, the questioner asked, how would you approach foreign policy decision-making on Israel and the Middle East?
"Well here's my starting orientation," Obama said: "A - Israel's security is sacrosanct, is non-negotiable. That's point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we're going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we're in. Number three, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn't mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It's going to have to be contiguous, it's going to have to work - it's going to have to function in some way.

"That's in Israel's interest by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat. So those are the starting points of my orientation. My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we're going to move forward on an improvement of relations and a sustainable peace. The question that I will be asking any advisor is how does it achieve the goal of Israel's security and how does it achieve the goal of sustainability over the long term and I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we're going to achieve that."

He added that when he was in Ramallah, he told the Palestinians "you can't fault Israel for being concerned about any peace agreement if the Palestinian state or Palestinian Authority or Palestinian leadership does not seem to be able to follow through on its commitments." With respect to negotiations, he said, "you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through and that's a position that I have consistently taken and the one I will take with me to the White House."

"One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel," Obama continued, "was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It's very ironic. I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he's dealing with these people every day. There's good and there's bad, and he was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and we made this miscalculation and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that's not good for our security situation. There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I'm sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the U.S. pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I'm saying though is that, ultimately, [that] should be our goal -- to have that same clear-eyed view about how we approach these issues."

The next questioner asked what Obama would say to the Jewish community about George Bush and his support for Israel. Obama noted straight off that the Jewish community is "diverse" and "has interests beyond Israel." He said the Jewish community in America has a tradition as a "progressive force" concerned with children, civil rights, and civil liberties.
"Those are values ... much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can't be forgotten."

He said that to the extent some Jews have gone over to the G.O.P, it's been because of Israel. "And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences of George Bush's policies. The proof is in the point. I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel's security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush's foreign policy. It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq. We have spent what will soon be close to a trillion dollars strengthening Iran, expanding their influence. How is that helpful to Israel? ... You can't make that argument.
"And so the problem that we've seen in U.S. foreign policy generally has been this notion that being full of bluster and rattling sabers and being quick on the draw somehow makes you more secure.

"And keep in mind that I don't know anybody in the Democratic Party, and I will say this for Hillary Clinton and I will say this for myself, who has indicated in any way that we would tolerate and allow to fester terrorist threats, that we wouldn't hunt down, capture, or kill terrorists, that haven't been supportive of Israel capturing or killing terrorists. So it's not like we're a bunch of folks asking to hold hands and sing Kumbiya.

"When Israel launched its counterattack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, I was in South Africa at the time, a place that was not particularly friendly to Israel at the time and I was asked by the press, what did you think? And I said, if somebody invades my country or is firing rockets into my country or kidnapping my soldiers, I will not tolerate that. And there's no nation in the world that would."
At this point, one of Obama's aides told him he had time for one more question. A questioner asked him about press reports that he would consider Sen. Dick Lugar for his administration, given, again, his lack of friendliness toward Israel.

Obama said he was good friends with Lugar, and that Lugar "represents old school bipartisan foreign policy." He said that, among Republicans, Lugar was less ideologically driven, more driven by facts on the ground. After praising Lugar, he said he would "not be so presumptuous" to start talking about his cabinet, given that he is not yet the Democratic nominee.

Obama then decided, since his answer was relatively short, that he would take more questions. I raised my hand, and Obama called on me. I told him that I thought his approach to foreign policy -- negotiating with your enemies - could be powerful, strategically. I said that a few days earlier, I had met with my rabbi in Akron, and mentioned to him that I was going to be here this morning.
"The rabbi asked me to ask you whether you would meet with Hamas," I said.
"The answer is no," Obama said.
"What's the distinction, then," I asked, "between Hamas and Iran?"
"The distinction would be that ... they're not the head of state," he said. "They are not a recognized government ... There is a distinction to be drawn there and a legitimate distinction to be drawn."

"Now, again," he continued, "going back to my experiences in Israel and the discussions I've had with security officials there, I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what's going on and the point is that with respect to Hamas, you can't have a conversation with somebody who doesn't think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not going to be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That's not the circumstance that we're in right now."

He then turned to the audience to take one more question, about Indonesia (where Obama lived as a child) and the United States' approach to the Muslim world.
Obama said Indonesia represented a good case study. He said Indonesia actually had a very mild, tolerant brand of Islam when he was living there. This existed up through 1997. That year, the Asian financial crisis hit very hard, and Indonesia's GDP contracted by 30 percent. Essentially, a poor country had been hit with a Great Depression. "There was a direct correlation between the collapse of that economy and the rise of fundamentalist Islam inside of Indonesia," he said.

Obama said there is a hard-core group of jihadist fundamentalists in the Islamic world who "we can't negotiate with." He said Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism advisor in the Bush administration, estimates that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 jihadists worldwide -- "the hard core jihadists [who] would gladly blow up this room." He added, though, that it's a "finite number."
"We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them. That's the military aspects of dealing with this phenomenon ... and that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed."

"The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims who are along a spectrum of belief? Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last 7 years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women's rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrasas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable."

Obama closed with this: "Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril."

(After the event, the Obama campaign released a partial transcript to the press. You can find it here: )

Again, Obama received an extended standing ovation. He had spoken for about 45 minutes. And he was mobbed by well-wishers at the podium. One woman asked him why he was not nearly as specific in the debates. "We have 30 seconds!" Obama said. Another woman said: "It is so refreshing to hear someone think."

When it was my turn, I shook his hand, introduced myself, and told him I had been working hard to defuse the smear campaigns directed at him. "It means a lot," he said. "Thank you."
I asked him if he could give me an autograph for my sons, Meyer and Heshel, and handed him a piece of paper and pen. As he began to write, I started spelling the names. "M-E-Y-E-R," I said, "and Heshel, H-"
But Obama cut me off: "Like Abraham?" he asked.
I was surprised that Obama knew Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Maybe I shouldn't have been. After all, Heschel had marched with Martin Luther King and had been an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War; Heschel was a pious, pluralistic Jew committed to social action. But so few Jews today are even aware of Heschel and his legacy.
I nodded -- Heschel had inspired the naming of our son -- though we spelled it without the "c," something that I forgot, in that moment, to add.
"To Meyer and Heschel," he wrote. "Dream Big Dreams. Barack Obama."

I felt a keen sense, leaving the meeting room Sunday, that the media "storyline" I'd been hearing and reading of late -- that Obama is all eloquence, no substance; that he is a rock star generating a mindless cult of personality -- is itself over-simplistic and false. Obama showed a gut-level understanding of Israel's security needs and the U.S.-Israel friendship. He exhibited a deep sensitivity to the Jewish community's concerns and addressed them, one-by-one. He spoke eloquently and precisely, without notes, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the complexities of Middle East politics, and a clear-eyed vision of how he would proceed as commander-in-chief.

And he was all the more credible because he did not pander. He knew his audience. He knew not everyone in the room would be satisfied when he said he met with Brzezinski because of his views on Iraq. Not all would agree when he said that we have to allow for a debate in this country beyond the hawkish Likud party position, or when he said a future Palestinian state would have to be contiguous. He said those things anyway - just as he told Palestinians in Ramallah that they would have to give up the right of return. He said them because he believes them. And he believes, ultimately, they would help Israel remain a vibrant and secure homeland for the Jewish people.

Obama clearly understood that he needed to reach out to the Jewish community. That's why he convened such a remarkable meeting, nine days before the Ohio primary. He also understood Jewish leaders needed to feel free to ask the toughest questions in an intimate setting. That's why the event was not on his official schedule; that's why the media was not invited.
But he also knew, or course, that only speaking to those 90 or so people would not be enough. As things
were coming to a close, after he finished taking questions, he turned back to the room one more time. "And go out and write emails, guys," he said.
That's what I'm doing.
I hope you'll join me in doing the same.

The Lying Despicable Campaign to Turn Jews Against Obama, M.J. Rosenberg

It may be a case of chickens coming home to roost. I'm referring to Tim Russert's offensive questions to Barack Obama about Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan at this week's debate.

Yeah, yeah. I know that this is Tim Russert I'm talking about, a guy who has specialized in boorishness (especially toward Senator Clinton) during the entire campaign this year.

His idea of journalism is always the same: "gotcha." He surprises the candidate with some ancient quote or photo and then hectors him into an explanation. Every question he asks is designed not to produce a useful response but to knock her off her game and show the viewer that Tim (actually his team of researchers) has the ability to confuse the candidate. A stammering response is, for Tim, a hole-in-one. Essentially, Russert is in the oppo research business, not on behalf of any candidate but on behalf of his ratings.

This is not the place to discuss his disrespectful treatment of Clinton because it did not touch on Israel or Middle East issues. But Russert's attack on Obama did and this is an appropriate place to confront it.

The reason I refer to chickens coming home to roost is because I believe that Russert would not have mentioned Farrakhan if segments of the Jewish community had not raised this rather insignificant Muslim preacher into prominence. They did that by publicizing every nasty comment about Jews or Israel the man ever made, as if he had a huge following, was a candidate for high office, or was successfully instigating pogroms.

But that is what some segments of the community enjoy doing. It is as if our identity is only secure when we can point to enemies. Unfortunately, and predictably, our well-publicized responses to Farrakhan's attacks gave him national prominence he does not deserve.

In that sense, it is our own fault that Tim Russert asked Barack Obama about his non-existent relationship with Farrakhan. But it is Russert who asked the question and he is the one who needs to be called out for it. It is also worth noting that Farrakhan is seriously ill with cancer and has been out of the limelight for years -- at least until Russert decided to make him a story when he no longer is one.

Russert noted that Farrakhan had endorsed Obama at a recent prayer meeting and demanded to know, in a series of questions, "do you accept his support?" The question itself is ridiculous because it implies that Farrakhan's "support" for Obama is tantamount to Obama supporting Farrakhan.

It is obvious why Farrakhan "supports" Obama. Farrakhan is a black nationalist and would support any African-American running for President. Similarly, white supremacy groups will support John McCain if Obama is the Democratic nominee. Will Russert ask McCain if he "accepts" the support of the Ku Klux Klan? Of course not, because it is a stupid question although no less stupid than asking Obama if he accepts Farrakhan's support.

But the Farrakhan question was not just stupid. It was ugly, insensitive and disrespectful to Jews. It demonstrated Russert's obliviousness to the dynamite he was playing with: Jewish fears about anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. There are still thousands of Holocaust survivors among us and hundreds of thousands of their children and grandchildren. Today, in Iran, you have Ahmadinejad who denies the Holocaust took place while suggesting he might instigate another one.

It also was disrespectful to African-Americans, suggesting that every African-American can be held responsible for the actions or statements of every other (this is, of course, the essence of bigotry). It played on the racism of segments of the American public. And it poured fuel on the difficult, but improving, relations between African-Americans and Jews.

This is serious stuff, deadly stuff. But for Russert it was just an opportunity to pump up his ratings. Russert knows Obama does not share Farrakhan's views. (Would a young African-American have made it to the Senate from Illinois if he had?) Furthermore, Obama is a Christian and has no connection to Farrakhan.

Asking Obama to repudiate him is like asking me if I reject the praise the late Meir Kahane once bestowed upon me on the Larry King show. Why would I? Anyone who knows me understands that Kahane and I had nothing in common except our religion. Farrakhan and Obama don't even have that. End of story.

Following his Farrakhan line of attack, Russert went on to Obama's Protestant minister. Obama again said that he did not share his minister's views on anything but issues of faith (I don't share all of my rabbi's views either).

But Obama did not stop there. Although it was not necessary, he elaborated on his views on Jews and Israel. He said that he would not be in politics at all were it not for the support he always received from the Jewish community in Illinois. He called the Israel one "of our most important allies. " He said, " I think that its security is sacrosanct, and that the United States has a special relationship with Israel, as I myself do with the Jewish community."

He then added: " I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans, who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task in this process is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened."

The bottom line is that Obama, like Senators Clinton and McCain, is a friend of Jews and Israel. But that won't stop his opponents in the community, from swearing on a stack of Bibles that one or the other of them hates Jews, Israel or both.

Remember the lies the people now maligning Obama told about Clinton when she ran for the Senate? If she wins the nomination, they will be repeating them and Tim Russert will be demanding an explanation for the Suha Arafat kiss despite Clinton's record in the Senate. For the haters, it's all fun and games -- although it is anything but for those of us who care about the Jewish people, about Israel and, above all, about America.

I really do not look forward to another eight months of this and I am not referring only to Russert. I refer to those circulating the hate emails in the Jewish community about Obama and Clinton. I refer to the Democratic operatives who are going to scour McCain's record to find evidences of some deviation from the Likud position on borders or Jerusalem or, God forbid, an expression of sympathy for Palestinian children caught in the crossfire. I refer to the attacks on Obama for having a Muslim-sounding name or on Hillary for that innocent and infamous kiss.

It's all garbage. There is no anti-Israel candidate running for President. The partisans of one party or the other who say that there is, and who distort and lie to "prove" their point, need to be told that their tactics are indecent and beyond the pale.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how to resolve it is a legitimate subject for debate, using Israel or anti-Semitism to score against opposing candidates is not. Worse than that, it disrespects and insults our community.

But don't expect to stop receiving those hate e-mails anytime soon. No matter that they are nothing but lies, just like those e-mails everyone gets promising that a particular pill will enlarge a particular body part. The e-mails about the candidates are no different: lies for the gullible. They deserve the same response. Just hit "delete."

Published at TPM Cafe and as Those Hate Emails: Just Hit Delete, at Israel Policy Forum

Web Clip: Obama: I Will Rebuild Black-Jewish Alliance

In this web video, Barack Obama speaks of rebuilding the bonds between the African-American and Jewish communities.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Obama is a Strong Friend of Israel, by Congressman Robert Wexler, Jerusalem Post

If you're Jewish and spend any time on the Internet, you've read some outlandish things about the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. But the facts are clear: Senator Obama is a strong friend of the American Jewish Community and Israel, and will make ensuring Israel's security a high priority of his presidency.

Barack Obama's record speaks for itself. He has longstanding support among the Jewish community in Illinois, who know first hand his unshakable commitment to Israel's security. In the US Senate, he has established himself as a strong friend of Israel. As a candidate, he has made clear his commitment to deepen the US-Israel relationship and to defend Israel's security as a Jewish state.

Yet Senator Obama is still the target of poorly sourced smears and innuendo, often anonymously circulated in mass e-mails. Sadly, these baseless attacks have been transformed into official Republican talking points. In his February 21, 2008 op-ed ("Obama and the Jews" ) Marc Zell, the Co-Chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel, compiled a greatest hits of fiction and distortion about Barack Obama culled from one false email after another. To begin with, Zell abandons the tradition of bipartisan support for Israel, and completely ignores Senator Obama's strong record of support for Israel:

Iran divestment: Senator Obama introduced priority legislation strongly supported by the pro-Israel community to make it easier for states to divest their pension funds from Iran, as a means of increasing economic pressure to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. The divestment idea grew out of a meeting between Senator Obama and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year.

Hamas: Senator Obama has been steadfast in taking a hard line against Hamas until it recognizes Israel, renounces violence, and abides by past agreements. He has been clear that the Palestinians' suffering is a result of their own failed leadership. He was a cosponsor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.

Travel to Israel: Barack Obama traveled to Israel in 2006 and visited the home of an Israeli family that had been destroyed by a Katyusha rocket. Months later, when Hizbullah attacked Israel, he spoke out strongly for Israel's right to defend itself.

Israel's defense: Senator Obama has called for deepening US-Israel defense cooperation, especially in the area of missile defense, to ensure that Israel has the qualitative military edge it needs to defend itself.

Ignoring Senator Obama's record, Zell travels a low road filled with lies and distortions. In a sense, he has done us a service by demonstrating the total disregard for facts that Republicans will use to try to win this election. But these falsehoods cannot stand, so I will rebut each of them in turn.

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Zell says Brzezinski heads the Obama foreign policy team. This is false. Brzezinski endorsed Barack Obama because he agrees with Senator Obama's views on Iraq. He is not an adviser to the campaign, and has done no work for the campaign.

Robert Malley. Zell says Malley is on Senator Obama's team. Malley is one of hundreds of people who have sent advice to the campaign. He is not one of Barack Obama's Middle East advisers.

Susan Rice: Zell repeats a lie that Susan Rice, while advising John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, advised him to propose former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker as Middle East envoys. There is only one problem: Senator Kerry made that statement in December 2003, and Susan Rice did not join his campaign until July 2004.

Pastor Jeremiah Wright: Zell cites controversial statements about Israel made by the Pastor at Barack Obama's Chicago church. It is unfair to attribute Pastor Wright's views to Barack Obama, particularly because Senator Obama has stated explicitly and repeatedly that he disagrees with Pastor Wright's views on Israel, has told him so directly, and does not turn to his pastor for political advice. Furthermore, the Anti-Defamation league concluded "it has no evidence of any anti-Semitism by Mr. Wright."

Louis Farrakhan: There is no easier way to upset the American Jewish Community than by mentioning Farrakhan. But Zell omits the most crucial information: Barack Obama has repeatedly, and explicitly, condemned the anti-Semitic views of Louis Farrakhan for over 20 years, calling his statements "abhorrent." Obama has spoken out forcefully against anti-Semitism in the African-American community, most recently in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Zell could have easily established the truth about any of these matters, with very limited research. Responsible journalists have had no trouble uncovering and reporting the truth. The conservative New York Sun editorialized on January 9, 2008 that "Mr. Obama's commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America…. He has chosen to put himself on the record in terms that Israel's friends in America, at least those not motivated by pure political partisanship, can warmly welcome."

And on February 21, 2008, Eli Lake of the New York Sun reported that "the national security team that emerges around Mr. Obama is one that is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The Senator's advisers favor a withdrawal from Iraq and see it as a distraction from the wider war on Al-Qaeda; they have developed a detailed policy on how to exit the country. The campaign favors high-level diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran, but in the context of changing the behavior of these regimes. And the foreign policy team, like the candidate, does not support pressuring Israel into negotiations with Hamas."

Unfortunately, Zell is more interested in using falsehoods to win an election than standing up for Israel and American-Israeli relations. But across America, Jewish voters have had no trouble sorting out fact from fiction, and have found no cause to shy away from supporting Barack Obama. Indeed, they are rallying to his campaign in ever-growing numbers, inspired by his leadership, judgment, and the possibility he represents for truly transformational leadership. Nothing that Marc Zell says can change that.

The writer is a Congressman representing Florida

Feb. 27, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Obama and Israel: Triangulating Between Pragmatism and Idealism, Gidon D. Remba

In a comment on my "The New Republican Jewish Obama Smear: Return of the Big Lie," Richard Silverstein of Tikkun Olam wrote that "some of Obama's statements about Israel have been shamefully one-sided leaving no room for a balanced view of the conflict. He needs to be called on that even by those like me who support him." This raises what for many of us in the progressive community is the most challenging question of the presidential campaign: how do you win an election while at the same time remaining true to your (progressive) principles? Richard, here's my response to your comment.

I’m not sure that we can have it both ways. You acknowledge that adopting a “more one-sided” pro-Israel position is “part of the price you pay for moving from local to national & presidential politics.” Just how much Obama has had to do so is of course precisely the bone of contention between the Obama camp and his right-wing critics. But let's grant, for the sake of argument, that he, like any presidential candidate, has had to do that to some measure.

Yet what positions on the conflict could Obama take, that he hasn’t taken, which would enable him to gain the support of a large majority of the American Jewish community while remaining faithful to a progressive political outlook? We know that a considerable portion of the American Jewish community supports many of the positions of the Israeli peace camp. But can you run a successful presidential race hewing to those positions more so than Obama has so far? Solving this problem requires a complex triangulation between pragmatism and idealism.

I agree that Obama has made a number of AIPAC-like policy pronouncements throughout the campaign, including those he made to AIPAC in Chicago last year. Yet in several key areas he has clearly deviated from AIPAC orthodoxy. I would say that he has probably succeeded in doing that more so than any Democratic presidential candidate thus far.

First, there’s his statement in favor of negotiations with Syria, which is wisely couched in pro-Israeli government terms. In this, Obama has followed the tack that I (and other American Jewish progressive Zionists) took in late 2006 and early 2007, in my case, in a column in the Jewish press which you discussed at Tikkun Olam, "Look Who's Pressuring Israel”, where I wrote: “In reality, the Bush Administration is pressuring the Israeli government to refuse peace talks with Syria, according to the testimony of Prime Minister Olmert, his advisors and cabinet ministers. AIPAC, and its allies in the organized Jewish community, who rush to loudly protest any time there is a whiff of US pressure on Israel in favor of a peace initiative, has absolutely nothing to say when the White House blocks Israel from talking with Syria.” Following this line, which had become a staple of progressive Zionist/Americans for Peace Now criticism of the Bush Administration—see "APN Slams Bush for Pressuring Israel to Avoid Peace Talks", Obama told AIPAC on March 2, 2007, in a twist on its own never-pressure-Israel dogma: “No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”

Second, Obama has violated AIPAC orthodoxy, which shuns unconditional direct talks with Iran, relying instead on sanctions and implied threats of preemptive war, by repeatedly calling for negotiations with Iran over the nuclear impasse and other issues.

Third, Obama just told a group of leading American Jews in Cleveland, Ohio, that “there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress." (A transcript of Obama's remarks, well worth reading, is here.) AIPAC has not always followed Likud policy of course, but it has often tended to hawkish positions, sometimes more so than the Israeli government itself (as I've discussed in several publications, including "Wanted: A Moderate Pro-Israel Lobby," and "AIPAC Hijack").

Fourth, Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod told the New York Times a few weeks ago that, in Roger Cohen’s paraphrase, “There would be no six-year time-outs on Israel-Palestine under an Obama presidency. ‘He’d be actively involved from day one,’ said Axelrod.” AIPAC was quite content to go along with the Bush Administration's policy of malign neglect towards peace efforts during its first six years.

Triangulating between the pragmatic imperatives of winning the Democratic primaries while remaining faithful to his principles, should Obama be criticizing Israeli settlements and occupation policies while running for the Democratic nomination? Should he now, or during the general election campaign, be condemning Israel’s harsh economic pressure on the population of Gaza in response to Qassam rocket attacks? Will that help him win the American Jewish vote and defeat John McCain in the general election? Do we want to turn him into a Ron Paul, a Ralph Nader or a Dennis Kucinich? How much more can he really be like any of them and not marginalize, and forfeit, his candidacy?

During the general election campaign against McCain there will be more opportunity for policy differences on the Middle East (beyond Iraq) to emerge. But I don’t think that the royal road to the White House would have Obama become much more of an advocate for Peace Now positions, or, lehavdil, for those of Jewish Voice for Peace (with whom I disagree on many issues). OK, maybe just a little. But the onus is on us progressive Zionists and other pro-Israel Jewish peaceniks to say precisely how.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The New Republican Jewish Obama Smear: Return of the Big Lie, by Gidon D. Remba

A press release from the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) titled “Nader Calls Out Obama's ‘Pro-Palestinian’ Past” continues the pattern of attacks on Barack Obama using lies, baseless innuendo and guilt by association. Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks claimed that "Ralph Nader added to the debate on Senator Obama's views on Israel and the Middle East and raised serious doubts and questions about the true leanings of Senator Obama on these important issues." The RJC is continuing its long tradition of debasing political debate during presidential elections by avoiding real issues and engaging in slanderous attacks, much as it did against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats in the 2004 election.

In my response to the RJC’s calumnies from that contest, “Republican Jewish Attack Ads Push Spinning into Sinning,” I pointed out that “A former top Republican strategist has said of President George W. Bush’s senior campaign advisor Karl Rove that his ‘goal is never just to win, it is to destroy your opponent, [use] character assassination, whatever it takes. There is almost nothing Karl would not do. For example, religion was not part of Karl’s life but he viewed it as a political tool to be manipulated.’ (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21, 2004) The Republican Jewish Coalition has followed the lead of its non-Jewish Republican mentors.”

The RJC now imagines that if it repeats fabrications and innuendos about Obama and Israel often enough, American Jews will start to believe its propaganda. The Republican Jewish Coalition continues to debase American electoral politics not only by repeating bald-faced lies about Obama, but by stirring up the bad odor of Jewish chauvinism, pushing American Jews to believe that to be pro-Israel one must be anti-Palestinian.

The RJC press release concludes with big-lie tactics which would have made Joseph Goebbels proud, shamelessly suggesting that “Obama supports Ralph Nader's policies, which consistently condemn Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism” and that Obama “shares this anti-Israel bias,” which “puts into doubt his commitment to the safety and security of Israel.”
In fact, neither the RJC nor Nader offer any evidence whatsoever that Barack Obama “supports Ralph Nader’s policies, which consistently condemn Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism,” as the RJC charges. Quite the contrary, given Obama’s long track record of whole-hearted support for Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism, and his defense of Israel’s and the Jewish community’s rights and needs both in the Illinois State Senate and the U.S. Senate, the RJC’s libels don’t even pass the laugh test. Goebbels wrote that “when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” Precisely what kind of fools does the RJC take American Jews for?

Once again, the Republican Jewish Coalition, which calls itself “the “sole voice of Jewish Republicans to Republican decision makers and the Jewish community,” has set itself up as the Jewish Swift Boat Brigade. When the original Swift Boaters disseminated their smear campaign against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Senator John McCain was among the first to condemn its ads and statements as “dishonest and dishonorable…very, very wrong.” Now that McCain is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, he should once again denounce Republican smear campaigns against his opponent, and insist that all groups participating in public discourse on the presidential campaign refrain from fear-mongering, slander and smear. We, the American Jewish community, are owed a far higher standard of debate than the political sewage being shoveled out by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

More examples from the RJC Press Release:

1. Fictions About Obama’s Positions on Israel: RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks now cites a comment from newly announced presidential aspirant Ralph Nader that “Sen. Obama had reversed his positions on Israel. Nader said Sen. Obama's ‘better instincts and his knowledge have been censored by himself’ and that Sen. Obama was ‘pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois before he ran for the state Senate’ and ‘during the state Senate.’ Yet Nader offers not a scintilla of evidence for his claims, which have been refuted before.

These claims originate with the Palestinian American one-state advocate and Electronic Intifada editor Ali Abunimah, who was described by right-winger Ed Lasky as “not the most reliable source” in his own mendacious assault on Obama in the American Thinker.

The New York Daily News reported that “Pro-Palestinian Prof. Rashid Khalidi denied a report that Obama used to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and had recently shifted his stance to pro-Israel.” [3/6/07] (Abunimah was a protégé of Khalidi, who is now the Edward Said Professor or Arab Studies at Columbia University, and then at the University of Chicago).

2. Twisting Obama Quotations to Convey the Opposite Meaning: The RJC continues its distortions by recycling a quote taken so far out of context as to convey the opposite of what Obama actually said: it claims that “Sen. Obama has caught criticism for pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel statements and sentiments before. In March 2007, Sen. Obama was criticized for saying that ‘Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinians.’ In fact, The Baltimore Jewish Times reported that Obama “went on to say that the cause of that suffering was the Palestinians' own terror-sponsoring leadership.”

Obama’s impeccable pro-Israel record as a legislator and public figure has been summarized here and here.

3. The Anti-Israel Advisor Smear: The RJC press release continues its mud-slinging by recycling discredited charges about “advisors” to Obama who have “controversial” positions on Israel: “Obama has also been criticized for stocking his campaign with several controversial advisors including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Malley, Samantha Power and Susan Rice.”

In fact, Obama has not “stocked his campaign” with Brzezinski and Malley, who are not advisors to Obama, and Power and Rice do not advise him on Israel and the Middle East; instead, well-known, respected pro-Israel policy mavens including Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro advise him on Israel.

For the real story on Obama’s foreign policy advisors, see “The Truth About Obama’s Foreign Policy Advisors,” by Obama friend and campaign insider Jack S. Levin.

JTA: Obama: Don't Equate 'Pro-Israel' and 'Pro-Likud'

Barack Obama faulted elements in the pro-Israel community that he says equate being pro-Israel with being pro-Likud.

"I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel," the Illinois senator and contender for the Democratic presidential nominee told a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland on Sunday. "If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress."

The Likud Party, in the Israeli opposition, advocates minimal territorial concessions to the Palestinians and promotes settlement in the West Bank.

Obama was addressing a series of attacks, most from Republicans, that suggest that he has surrounded himself with anti-Israel advisers. He noted that he did not take the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration national security adviser named in some of the attack e-mails.

Obama explained that he accepted Brzezinski's endorsement, based on shared views on ending the Iraq war, but did not share Brzezinski's critical views of Israel. Nonetheless, he cautioned against marginalizing those with different views.

"Frankly some of the commentary that I've seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is non military or non belligerent or doesn't talk about just crushing the opposition that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we're going to have problems moving forward," he said.

Obama also said he encountered more nuanced views among Israelis than Americans.

"There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel," he said. "All of you, I'm sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the U.S. pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I'm saying though is that actually ultimately should be our goal, to have that same clear eyed view about how we approach these issues."

The meeting, taking place as the campaigns of Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) blitz the state ahead of a March 4 primary, was off the record, but a rough transcript was later made available.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Obama's Change Could be Good for Israel, Daniel Levy, Ha'aretz

Here's something else to add to an Israeli's menu of worries: The United States presidential elections may produce change in 2009. Or so fear people like Malcolm Hoenlein, the professional head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who said on a recent visit to Israel that all the talk of "change" is an "opening for mischief," and not good for Israel.

Apparently the status quo is so idyllic for Israel that one should wish for nothing more than that it be perpetuated eternally.

Of course not all change is good, but the Israeli-American relationship could benefit greatly from a dose of new thinking - in terms of both the nature and the exclusivity of that alliance.

There are already two storm clouds looming over the blissful American-Israeli landscape, but they are the product of current, not possible future, policies. The first is that reality is forcing more Americans to take a closer look at the Middle East. They see the scorched earth left behind by their government's recent policies, and the investment of U.S. lives and lucre. As they begin to ask questions, the role of the bilateral partnership is inevitably placed under increasing scrutiny. Sometimes the scrutiny is unfair: Israel, for example, did not get the U.S. into Iraq. And sometimes it's more justified: Complicity in Israeli settlements and occupation carry a heavy toll for America's standing in the region and beyond.

The candidacy of Ron Paul, on the Republican side, has been a lightning rod for that sentiment. His campaign broke party records, raising $4.2 million in contributions in one day, mainly in online donations. Paul will not be the Republican candidate for president, but the tendency for people to ask, "What is going on with the U.S. in the Middle East, and why does our ally Israel make things more difficult?" should give cause to reflect. The business-as-usual approach of many of Israel's supporters is not sustainable over time.

Four or eight more years of aggressive, divisive, costly and failed American policies in the region - especially if supported by the so-called pro-Israel camp - will exacerbate this tension, perhaps exponentially.

The second cloud is that Israel is today hitched to an America that is weakened economically, stretched militarily, deeply divided at home and decidedly unpopular abroad. To the extent that the next president continues the policies that have contributed to those trends, Israel too will pay a price. When Israel is so dependent on the U.S., and the U.S. is wounded, we feel it.

The warm rhetoric continues to emanate from Washington, and that feels comforting. The problem is that its utility is diminished, and nice words are no substitute for the smart plans that would actually make the U.S. and Israel more, not less, secure. Israel should hope for and encourage a change that lifts America out of its current morass, while at the same time diversifying its ally portfolio.

Haaretz's "Israel Factor" notwithstanding (and most members of that panel look like the Israeli equivalent of the aging WASPs one tends to find on a platform alongside John McCain), it is Barack Obama who has best positioned himself to reverse these trends and thereby guarantee the U.S.-Israel relationship. An Obama presidency is more likely to be the antidote to further tensions than their source.

The response so far in Israel to the Obama candidacy has split between gevald and hatikva. The former has more to do with email slur campaigns and our own prejudices than with hard policy positions espoused by the Illinois senator. The latter is easily understood when set against the prospect in 2009 of a 1999 election redux, of Bibi (Netanyahu) vs. Barak (Ehud), yawn. Perhaps Obama's ability to mobilize young people and to transcend political indifference, and his audacity to hope, will be infectious here in the 51st state of the U.S.A.

But Israel should be looking beyond the election. Yes, an Obama presidency is more likely to reverse America's decline - internally and externally - and to correct the hubris, incompetence and adventurism of the Bush years. The same might also be true of Clinton and McCain, though it seems less likely. It is what Obama could do to reenergize America that is first and foremost the good news for Israel. And when he talks of "changing the mindset" that got America into the Iraq war, Obama implies a policy of realism and engagement that stands to stabilize the region and even advance genuine peace. Israel could well be a main beneficiary of such a change.

But what if the next president is all about more of the same or something very similar? Israel must plan for the possibility of an America that continues in its decline, that can deliver less, and remains militarily bogged down in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere in the region. Under this scenario, the special relationship with Israel will become an ever-more contentious issue. America itself might increasingly turn its gaze toward Asia.

So while following American developments closely, and hoping for change, Israel should also be more active out there on the dating circuit. Though efforts have been made to strengthen other alliances, results have been mixed so far, and our options will remain limited so long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved.

The preference for a prolonged strategic relationship with the U.S. should not extend to an exclusive reliance on that relationship or preclude placing some eggs in other baskets - in Europe, in Asia, and yes, also in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, is a former adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and was lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

Published 2/22/08 in Ha'aretz

Originally Published in Ha'aretz as "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst"

Some Israeli Hawks Say: Talk with Hamas

Former Shin Bet/General Security Services Chief Ya'akov Perry and Israel's Minister of Transportation, former IDF Chief of Staff Likudnik Shaul Mofaz have joined the growing ranks of Israeli hawks and other pragmatic realists who believe that it is in Israel's security interests to engage in talks with Hamas over a bilateral cease-fire and the release of Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.

In a new interview, former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy (a Sharon appointee) makes the case once again for the view that Israel's current policy towards Hamas and the PA is failing and should be replaced by a more realistic strategy (he has made his case in many places during the last year, including in the Wall Street Journal). A new more successful approach, in Halevy's view, would no longer insist on Hamas' recognition of Israel as a pre-condition for any negotiations, much as Israel has never insisted on this pre-condition with any other Arab party with whom it has negotiated. Rather, recognition of Israel should be the outcome of a negotiation process.

Halevy proposes an alternative way which would enable Israel to continue to avoid direct contact with Hamas, but bargain with Hamas all the same: indirect negotiations through a third party acceptable to both sides. The potential dividend to Israel's security? Not only a cease-fire which would end the rocket attacks on Sderot and southern Israel, and avoiding a costly invasion of Gaza which might also fail to achieve its objectives, while also risking a renewed flare-up of hositilities with Hezbollah in the north, as happened in the summer of 2006, leading to the Lebanon War. A serious dialogue through a third party could even drive a wedge between Iran and Hamas, Halevy suggests.

While Halevy seems pessimistic that the Olmert government will try this approach, latest reports indicate that there are third party mediation efforts going on right now between the Israeli government and Hamas over a cease-fire and prisoner release. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's threats of a coming full-scale Gaza invasion may be intended to strengthen Israel's hand in the negotiations, so that Hamas believes it may have much to lose if it fails to cut a deal with Israel.

Back here in the States, suggesting that Israel talk to Hamas in any way, shape or form is viewed as heresy worthy of excommunication (despite the fact that such respected figures as Bush's former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff led the U.S. to victory in the first Persian Gulf War, has endorsed this view). No presidential candidate, including Barack Obama, will so much as flirt with such notions. American electoral politics is no place for subtle distinctions, deviations from the slogans of political orthodoxy, or tectonic shifts in thinking about the Middle East. Or is it?

Doni Remba

Israel's Mossad, Out of the Shadows
Washington Dispatch: Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy explains why he advocates talks with Hamas.
By Laura Rozen

Mother Jones
February 19, 2008

It's fair to call Efraim Halevy—who served three Israeli prime ministers as chief of the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence service—a hawk. He negotiated a covert peace deal with Jordan that preceded the countries' public treaty in 1994. Nine years later, he resigned as head of Israel's National Security Council over policy differences with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. And when he left the Mossad, Halevy received the prestigious CIA Director's Award from then-director George Tenet for his assistance to the U.S. intelligence service—the exact details of which Halevy cannot disclose.

This month, St. Martin's Press published a paperback edition of Halevy's riveting 2006 memoir of his 35 years in the Mossad, Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man Who Led the Mossad. I interviewed Halevy by phone and email about his career, details of covert channels in his book, and his recent public call for both the Bush administration and Israel to talk with the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.

Mother Jones: Mr. Halevy, in your memoir you make clear your belief that Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, have not fully come to terms with the national security threats posed by Islamic militancy and terrorism. Yet you've also said it would be a grave mistake for the West to treat all Islamist terrorist groups the same way, and argued that Israel should have some sort of process for talking with Hamas. If the West, led by Washington, continues to shun Hamas as an illegitimate terrorist group, do you see a risk that the group could take on a more nihilistic type of violence, a la al Qaeda?

Efraim Halevy: Hamas is not al Qaeda and, indeed, al Qaeda has condemned them time and time again. Hamas may from time to time have tactical, temporary contact with al Qaeda, but in essence they are deadly adversaries. The same goes for Iran. Hamas receives funds, support, equipment, and training from Iran, but is not subservient to Tehran. A serious effort to dialogue indirectly with them could ultimately drive a wedge between them.

MJ: Why do you think Israel and Washington should talk with Hamas?

EH: Hamas has, unfortunately, demonstrated that they are more credible and effective as a political force inside Palestinian society than Fatah, the movement founded by [former Palestinian Authority president] Yassir Arafat, which is now more than ever discredited as weak, enormously corrupt and politically inept.

[Hamas has] pulled off three "feats" in recent years in conditions of great adversity. They won the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; they preempted a Fatah design to wrest control of Gaza from them in 2007; and they broke out of a virtual siege that Israel imposed upon them in January 2008. In each case, they affected a strategic surprise upon all other players in the region and upon the United States, and in each case, no effective counter strategy mounted by the US and Israel proved effective.

Security in the West Bank is assured not by the fledgling and ineffective security forces of Abu Mazen now undergoing training once again by American-led instructors. It is the nightly incursions of the Israeli Defense Forces into the West Bank, their superior intelligence, together with that of the Israel Security Agency that does the job.

Current strategy in the West Bank to forge a credible Palestinian security capacity is floundering; indeed, several of the deaths of Israelis at the hands of West Bank terrorists were perpetrated by none other than members of the units under the command of Abu Mazen.
It makes sense to approach a possible initial understanding including Hamas—but not exclusively Hamas—at a time when they are still asking for one. No side will gain from a flare up leading to Israel re-entering the Gaza strip in strength to undo the ill-fated unilateral disengagement of 2005.

MJ: Should Hamas be required to recognize Israel's right to exist before Israel would talk with it?

EH: Israel has been successful in inflicting very serious losses upon Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank and this has certainly had an effect on Hamas, who are now trying to get a "cease fire." But this has not cowed them into submission and into accepting the three-point diktat that the international community has presented to them: to recognize Israel's right to exist; to honor all previous commitments of the Palestinian Authority; and to prevent all acts of violence against Israel and Israelis. The last two conditions are, without doubt, sine qua non. The first demands an a priori renunciation of ideology before contact is made. Such a demand has never been made before either to an Arab state or to the Palestinian Liberation Organization/Fatah. There is logic in the Hamas' position that ideological "conversion" is the endgame and not the first move in a negotiation.

MJ: How should such talks be conducted?

EH: Hamas shuns direct contact and negotiations with Israel and this actually meets Israel's reciprocal attitude to them. The same is true of the United States. But Hamas is eager to "engage" the two indirectly and reach a verifiable cease fire, and understands that could lead to more "down the road."

Such a strategy of indirect proximity engagement, whilst covering our flanks, offers the prospects of lowering the temperature in the region, easing constraints, and opening up real possibilities of social and economic progress. This is a policy that could be tested, and is warranted by the abject failure of the present Palestinian Authority rump leadership in the West Bank led by the aging, tired and sad Abu Mazen [Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas], and his able prime minister Salaam Fayyad, a great economist and banker but a man who does not pretend to overstay his time.

MJ: Regarding your mention of "indirect proximity talks." Structurally, how does that work? Is it conducted by a third party, like Egypt or Turkey? Who would be a trusted broker?

EH: Proximity talks can sometime be done through third parties who are states or individuals—third party emissaries who are not states. It can be done by personalities acceptable to both sides.

MJ: How do we know this is not already taking place?
EH: I don't know whether it's occurring or not. If it's occurring, I applaud it.

MJ: Do you envisage that new leadership in Washington next year could reject the path taken by Bush of refusing to deal with Hamas and make a big change towards the approach you recommend?

EH: I have no idea. I don't want to second guess, and I don't know who the leadership will be. It would be politically incorrect to start surmising what the new leadership would do a year from now. A year in life of the Middle East is a millennium.

MJ: Again and again, Israel and Washington too have tried to engineer which Palestinians would come to power, to whom they would speak or recognize, etc. Is this itself problematic? Should the West step back from trying to manipulate internal Palestinian politics?

EH: Yes, for two reasons. First, is the sovereign right of Palestinians to decide who their leadership should be. I think that is the basis of democracy. More than that, it is the best possible way in my opinion for a country or society to determine how it wants to be governed and how it wants to be lead. And second, so far it must be admitted that attempts to do this [manipulate internal Palestinian politics] have not succeeded. After all, in the final analysis, it would not be possible to create and fashion a leadership from without.

MJ: It's not just Washington and Israel, but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who is asking those countries not to deal with Hamas, but rather strengthen him. So do you think it's more of the same phenomenon if the West then picks Hamas as the more legitimate representation of the Palestinians?

EH: I don't think one or the other are the sole representation. But I think that the way things are at the moment, the two of them have a major role in the leadership of the Palestinian people, and to exclude one and to magnify the other artificially will not lead to a productive outcome.
I don't know whether it is Abu Mazen who is pushing Washington and Israel not to deal with Hamas, or Abu Mazen who is acquiescing to them, or some combination of both. I don't know who the stronger element in this policy is.

There is a triangle of forces: Israel, the Abu Mazen–led group in Ramallah, and the [Bush] administration. They have become mutually interdependent on this policy and one cannot rule without the other two. That's the way it is at the moment.

MJ: You are not optimistic that the current administration will change course?

EH: It appears by all indications that neither Israel nor the United States are prepared to contemplate such a test of alternative strategy. Therefore, what we seem to be in for is a period where Israel will continue to negotiate the details of a permanent settlement to the dispute with a rump Palestinian leadership that has already indicated it will not run for re-election in the upcoming elections in 2009.

Laura Rozen is Mother Jones' national security

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why Obama is Better for Israel, by Daniel Levy

The debate around the Barack Obama candidacy has not surprisingly heated up of late in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. Most of the arguments are well rehearsed and predictable, (some are spurious and deplorable) but they often miss the point and fail to connect between the broader Obama appeal and its relevance to the US-Israel equation. That connection is as follows: the Israel-America relationship is best served by a president who can bring external strength to the US through greater internal unity, can restore America’s standing and credibility in the Middle East, be an effective global coalition-builder and deal-broker and end, how can I put it, fairy-tale based foreign policy. And Barack Obama looks like the person to do those things.

Of course, the Jewish community is not immune to the kind of smear campaigns, innuendos and direct appeals to racism and Islamophobia that have been a feature of the more general anti-Obama sewer politics. In response, the alpha list of Jewish leadership, Orthodox, Reform, ADL, AJC and more, did the right thing and published this open letter speaking out against the “hateful emails,” and “abhorrent rhetoric,” that “mischaracterized Senator Barack Obama’s religious beliefs and who he is as a person.”

Unfortunately, there are attempts to kosher those kinds of smear campaigns for the specific consumption of American Jews—by making it about Israel. Look at his color, did you hear about his religion? He must be anti-Israel. When I was back home in Israel recently I was shocked to discover that an ugly hate campaign being distributed virally by email in the US has made its way into Hebrew and is doing the rounds in Israel. The Obama campaign has done an impressive job at pushing back in clarifying the senator’s record and positions in the Jewish-American and Israeli press. I know this election campaign is all about change but the pro-Israel community is often more interested in continuity and, in terms of the historic relationship between America and Israel, Obama offers that. Dare I say it, Obama seems more in step with Bill Clinton’s Israel policy as president than Hillary does (her policy, for instance, contradicts her husband’s peace plan of December 2000). Obama represents the classic appeal to a relationship based on security for Israel, stability in the region, active American diplomatic engagement and pursuit of peace - talk to the bad guys if that is what can deliver results and certainly don’t prevent Israel from talking to it’s neighbors (the Bush administration has, for instance, discouraged Israel’s leaders from resuming negotiations with Syria).

It is actually the Republican neocons under Bush 43 who have been the transformational policy change and new idea people when it comes to the Middle East. And to paraphrase Obama himself from a different conversation, to recognize that they had transformational ideas is not to support those ideas, agree with them, or think they were good ideas. Bush’s policies in the region have not been good for America or Israel. The Middle East is more radically and dangerously destabilized and Israel faces a more uncertain security environment.

So what is the point on Obama that gives him the edge on Israel? It sounds a little unusual, but a strong case can be made that the most important issue for an American politician to have gotten right in the last years from a pro-Israel perspective was the Iraq war. And I mean opposition to that war. And Obama got it right. His instincts and judgment trumped the supposed ‘experience’ of others. I know it’s fashionable in some quarters to view the Iraq war as carrying a Made in Israel label, but at the highest levels of the political and military leadership (and according to reports this includes then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) the Israelis were skeptics, understanding the possible implications for regional equilibrium, the spread of al-Qaeda, and the oxygen this would suck up from attention to other issues.

Not all of the consequences of that war were so unpredictable. With the removal of its major regional competitor, Iran now has more influence and is emboldened. Al-Qaeda was able to establish a new base of operations in Iraq to which it has recruited fighters from across the Arab world and from which it has been able to spread out and conduct attacks in Jordan, in the Egyptian Sinai, in Lebanese refugee camps, and there are reports of al-Qaeda copycat cells in Palestinian areas. That is getting very close to home for Israelis and it is a dramatically unwelcome development. America is overstretched and bogged down militarily and its reputation is battered on so many levels. None of this of course is good for America but it is also very bad news indeed for Israel. So, the Iraq decision matters. And after the CNN debate there is no need for a refresher course on which candidate was ready, on day one, to oppose the war.

The combination of an American president deeply committed to Israel but vilified internationally and regionally, who pursues dangerously misguided Middle East policies and does so with woeful incompetence to boot, turns out not to be so ideal. A far greater asset to the pro-Israel community would be an American president equally committed to Israel and her security, and who is also able to build regional and global alliances, is capable of restoring America’s image, of deploying concerted, effective, and when necessary, tough diplomacy, and who, by uniting America from within, can strengthen the America that is then projected outwards. Barack Obama seems to have best positioned himself to be that president. As Senator Kennedy noted in endorsing Obama, “when he raises his hand on Inauguration Day, at that very moment, we will lift the spirits of our nation and begin to restore America's standing in the world.”

Here’s what Barack Obama had to say in the most recent CNN presidential debate when discussing Iraq: “I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” Changing that mindset is very much a shared American and Israeli interest. Israel remains strong, but the hawkish Bush years have not been good for stability in Israel’s neighborhood, for Israeli security or for Israel’s long-term interests. Obama’s possibly unique ability to reverse America’s decline, to overcome the politics of fear and demonstrate a leadership that is compelling also outside of America matters to a certain country that is strategically aligned with and even reliant on the US, namely Israel. This point has been missed amidst all the mudslinging. It should matter deeply across the spectrum of the pro-Israel community in America.

Look, I’m an Israeli and this is probably none of my business. But having been a negotiator for the Israeli government and seen first hand the vital role that America can play, it matters to me. To be frank my personal belief is that it is in Israel’s interest for there to be a more robust, assertive and tireless American effort to help secure peace between Israel and her neighbors, that American leadership is perhaps a prerequisite in achieving this, and that American should pursue such an outcome as part of its own national security priorities. The Winograd report just published in Jerusalem that investigates the Lebanon war of summer 2006 is not particularly subtle in pointing out that Israel ’s military capabilities were seriously undermined by a lack of investment in training over the last years. That is a consequence of the Israeli Defense Forces being saddled with what are basically policing duties at checkpoints and in deployments throughout the West Bank. Israel needs to put the occupation behind it. As prime minister Olmert has pointed out, a two state peace deal is an urgent priority for Israel.

But I digress, that’s not what this is about. This is about what might unite most of the pro-Israel community and that centers around strengthening the America-Israel relationship in ways that are mutually beneficial, that bring out the best in both countries, and that can deliver a more stable, secure and peaceful Middle East. Israel’s supporters in America should not feel excluded or alienated from the excitement that surrounds the hope that is Obama, they have every reason, in fact, to embrace and be a part of it.

Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation.

During the Barak Government, he worked in the Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of the Jerusalem Affairs unit under Minister Haim Ramon. He also worked as senior policy adviser to former Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin. He was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the negotiating team to the “Oslo B” Agreement from May to September 1995, under Prime Minister Rabin. In 2003, he worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group Middle East Program. Daniel was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative and prior to joining The Century Foundation and New America Foundation was directing policy planning and international relations at the Geneva Campaign Headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Originally published as "Obama and Israel: Missing the Point" at Daniel Levy's Prospects for Peace blog

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Assassinating Terrorist Kingpins: Successful Counterterrorism or Opening the Gates of Hell?, Gidon D. Remba

The assassination last week in Damascus of Imad Mugniyah, the notorious Hezbollah arch-terrorist, raises anew the long-swirling controversy over the practical efficacy, wisdom and moral justification for the Israeli and American counter-terrorism strategy of targeted killing. Israeli news correspondent Ronen Bergman offered the following trenchant observation in “Bracing for Revenge” in the New York Times (Feb. 18, 2008):

"However much backslapping and Champagne-cork popping may be going on in Tel Aviv and Langley, Va., the questions remains: Was it worth the effort and resources and the mortal risk to the agents involved? Few would deny that Mr. Mugniyah, who had the blood of many hundreds of Americans and Israelis, not to mention Frenchmen, Germans and Britons, on his hands, deserved the violent death that befell him, or that eliminating this top-flight mass murderer might prevent more death. But this act of combined vengeance, punishment and pre-emption might extract a far greater cost in the future

At Mr. Mugniyah’s funeral on Thursday, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to retaliate against Israel, saying, “Let it be an open war anywhere.”… Hezbollah has no doubt that it was Israel who eliminated its top terrorist, and once more it is bent on vengeance. As Hezbollah draws no fine distinctions between the United States and Israel, both nations, along with Jews around the world, might well have to pay the price for the loss of the man whose mystical aura was as important as his operational prowess.

In the immediate aftermath, Hezbollah has chosen not to respond with volleys of rockets aimed at Galilee, as many Israelis feared. But an inkling of how the group might respond can be found in the July 2007 statements of Michael McConnell, America’s director of national intelligence, expressing grave apprehension about Hezbollah sleeper cells in the United States that could go into action should the Americans cross the organization’s “red line.”

This line has now been crossed. Only the severest of countermeasures by the intelligence services of Israel and the United States will prevent last week’s assassination, justified as it was, from costing a vastly disproportionate price in blood."

I took the train today from New Jersey to Penn Station and saw the new signs at Amtrak and around the station informing passengers of the new security procedures: random checks of carry-on baggage, officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains. Having lived through mass terrorist attacks in Israel, it is clear to me that, reassuring though such steps might be, they are woefully inadequate. They remain a giant leap short of Israeli security practices in public places like commuter train stations. Moreover, the security holes remaining in the public transportation system are so large that one could almost drive an explosive-laden Mack truck through them. A determined terrorist—even a not-so-determined terrorist—can still carry a bomb into Penn Station’s main public areas through any of the non-secure trains linking from the tri-state area to Penn Station, or from the public entrances from 7th and 8th avenues, and wreak massive damage, killing dozens if not hundreds of people.

Trust me, I’m not giving the terrorists any ideas: they’ve done this countless times already in public places in Europe and in Israel. Innumerable security experts have been warning for years that we are long overdue for such attacks in the U.S. Now, the assassination of Hezbollah’s number two may well be the trigger which activates its sleeper cells in the U.S., pushing us off the cliff into the bloody hell of terrorist revenge on American soil.

U.S. government officials—federal, state and local—along with transportation authority leaders, still refuse to take the kinds of precautions which could save hundreds of innocent lives. These would entail, among other things, checking every passenger and parcel before he or she enters Penn Station and other mass transit points. It would vastly slow down our public transportation system, and snarl public commuting. I fear that we will take this highly inconvenient step only after we have sacrificed many more American lives.

Our current dilemma makes relevant once more an essay I wrote on the controversies surrounding targeted killing and assassination of terrorists in response to Steven Spielberg’s film Munich, titled Munich’s Moral Muddle: Steven Spielberg, Counterterrorism and Middle East Peace. There I show why, contrary to Spielberg (in his incarnation as the film’s director), and screenwriter Tony Kushner, state assassination of terrorists without trial is both moral and legal, and a necessary part of safeguarding our own human rights.

But I maintain that “Strong counter-terrorist efforts which are never followed by serious and sustained attempts to encourage Palestinian support for reconciliation with Israel, failing to exploit opportunities for peace, are misbegotten. Much the same is true of preemption which never knows when it is best to forbear the use of lethal force. Both condemn Israel to live by the sword forever, nurturing the cynical right’s self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.” Now what applies with regard to the targeted killing of Palestinian terrorists does not hold when it comes to the Lebanese Hezbollah. Nonetheless, might the assassination of Mugniyeh have been one more case in which it would have been wiser to forbear in the exercise of our legitimate right to employ preemptive force?

Munich’s Moral Muddle: Steven Spielberg, Counterterrorism and Middle East Peace
Gidon D. Remba

Excerpts Delivered as a Talk at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, Evanston, IL

I. Spielberg’s Critique of Israeli Counterterrorism
II: The Historical Context: European Capitulation to Palestinian Terrorism after Munich
III. Targeted Killing and Jewish Ethics
IV. Just War, Terrorism and Preemptive Killing
V. Selective Criticism of Targeted Killings
VI. Spielberg’s Volte Face on Israeli Counterterrorism After Munich

I. Spielberg’s Critique of Israeli Counterterrorism

Steven Spielberg’s describes his film Munich as his “prayer for peace.” How so? Spielberg explained to the Los Angeles Times that answering aggression with aggression “creates a vicious cycle of violence with no real end in sight.” He has said much the same thing to Time magazine: “a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine.” And indeed the message of the film is that striking back with force against terrorism only breeds more terrorism—a war on terror only engenders terror—and compromises the very moral values which differentiate the counterterrorists from the terrorists themselves. Spielberg’s juxtaposition of the World Trade Towers at the end of the film is meant to generalize this message from the Israeli context to the US war on terror. But Spielberg’s message is either banal or misbegotten. His film offers little insight into the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy for navigating the moral maze of war and peace.

It is worth noting that since it is the Israelis in the Mossad hit team who undergo these epiphanies about the moral dubiousness of preventive or retributive killing—not the Palestinians—criticisms of the film which suggest that the Israelis are portrayed as morally equivalent to Palestinian terrorists are groundless. It is, after all, the Israelis who are portrayed as fastidious about avoiding civilian casualties, the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who exhibit moral compunctions about every use of lethal force, a fact which stands in stark contrast with the indiscriminate slaughter perpetrated by Palestinian Black September members at Munich. But the overriding message of the film is clear—and it is delivered in the voice of the protagonist, Avner, the leader of the Israeli team, and secondarily in the voices of those other members of his team who increasingly question whether killing terrorists, or suspected terrorists, can be squared with their Jewish moral values, and with whether it is even effective as a counter-terror tactic. The conclusion they clearly reach is that counter-violence, counter-force is futile, solves nothing, that counter-terror tactics like targeted killings or assassinations of suspected terrorists simply breed more terror and can’t lead to peace. Indeed, several of the hit team members conclude that what they have been doing is both inimical to peace, immoral and un-Jewish.

Indeed, Avner protests, “maybe we will just keep killing them forever,” suggesting that the killing may simply contribute to an endless killing cycle with no exit. His Mossad handler, Ephraim, assures him: “in the end this will help bring peace,” but Avner remains skeptical: “Everyone we killed has been replaced by someone worse, someone more violent and more militant than their predecessor. There is no peace at the end of this,” he cries.

Consider this crucial scene at the end of the film: Avner wonders aloud to Ephraim: maybe we should have arrested the suspected Black September terrorists, as Israel did with Eichmann, rather than assassinating them. And there may be some who will think that this was a realistic or practical option for Israel. But nothing could be further from the truth. The kidnapping of Eichmann and his abduction to Israel from a foreign country was a unique event, and would be extraordinarily difficult to repeat, let alone dozens of times in numerous European countries. Israeli agents would be at much greater risk of failure and would likely to be caught and arrested themselves in the countries in question, since they would be committing crimes in those countries and violating their sovereignty.

II: The Historical Context: European Capitulation to Palestinian Terrorism after Munich

The sad truth is that we live in a world in which there is no serious international willingness to arrest, try and punish under law the terrorists who murder Israeli civilians. It was embarrassing how true this was in the period after Munich, when the Germans pusillanimously freed the three surviving captured Palestinian terrorists, in what many justifiably believe was a staged airplane hijacking by Black September designed to give the German government a pretext to free them from their Bavarian jail—and it remains largely true to this day. Upon learning of the “hijacking” of the Lufthansa jet only weeks after Munich, on October 29, 1972, the German government immediately acquiesced to the terrorists’ demands, without even informing the Israeli government. German Chancellor Willy Brandt explained that he “saw no alternative but to yield to this ultimatum and avoid further senseless bloodshed.” (Aaron J. Klein, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, pp. 127-8; Simon Reeve, One Day in September, p. 155, 156-159)

Simon Reeve reports: “The Palestinians had warned the government in Bonn that they would launch a wave of bombings and hijackings against Lufthansa unless the three Munich survivors were released. The ‘hijacking,’ according to German, Palestinian and Israeli sources, was a compromise agreed to by senior figures in the German government.” When Ulrich Wagner, a senior aide to German interior minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, “was asked point blank and on camera what he thought of the alleged German-Palestinian scheme, he replied, ‘Yes, I think it’s probably true.’” (Klein, p. 128) Wagner continued: “The German government thought that they could negotiate with the terrorist[s] and could convince them that they would give them money and something else to get rid of them…But of course it was the wrong way, no question, because when one case is solved in this way other cases will come.” (Reeve, pp. 157-8)

And come they did. On August 5, 1973, two Palestinians “produced submachine guns and grenades in the departure lounge at Athens airport and began blazing away at what they thought were Jewish passengers leaving Greece for Israel…There was carnage as they sprayed bullets indiscriminately…The departure lounge was a bloody mess, with the dying and seriously wounded screaming for help.” Three people were killed outright, a fourth died later in the hospital, and fifty-five passengers were wounded. The Palestinian terrorists were “caught, convicted and then promptly released by the Greek government when terrorists hijacked a Greek ship in Karachi and used them as bargaining chips.” (Reeve, pp. 199-200)

When Abu Daoud, the avowed mastermind of the Munich massacre, was arrested in France, he was quickly released “on a string of technicalities…after a perfunctory hearing lasting just twenty minutes.” (Reeve, p. 209) “The French authorities,” continues Reeve, “had been bribing and blackmailing terrorist groups to persuade them to avoid France during their attacks, and Daoud’s arrest by their officers threatened their delicate game…France chose to release Abu Daoud not only to protect itself from possible terrorist attacks but also because several Arab states threatened states threatened to withdraw deposits of cash totaling more than $15 billion—money from oil sales—that were stored in French banks. The morning after Daoud’s release, France also signed a deal with Egypt for the sale of two hundred Mirage jets…When the news of Daoud’s release was broadcast on radio and television there were near-riots in Tel Aviv…Even US President Jimmy Carter said he was ‘deeply disappointed.’” (Reeve, pp. 209-210) Much the same thing happened in Italy, as recently recounted by former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir: after arresting Palestinian terrorists who were about to fire Strella missiles at an El Al plane from an apartment overlooking the runway at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, “the Italians gave in and released” the terrorists when “a few months later the Palestinians hijacked a plane.” (Yossi Melman, “Preventive Measures,” Ha’aretz, Feb. 17, 2006).

The faked Lufthansa hijacking enabling the Germans to free the three surviving Palestinian Munich murderers little more than a month after the massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes “produced astonishment and rage in Israel,” notes Aaron Klein. Prime Minister Golda Meir later said with evident disgust: “I think that there is not one single terrorist held in prison anywhere in the world. Everyone else gives in. We’re the only ones who do not.” (Reeve, p. 158) Golda had resisted the urgings of Israeli military and intelligence officials to hunt down and assassinate those responsible for the Munich massacre. The German release of the Munich murderers was for her “the last straw.” Facing German and European cravenness, she consented to the counter-terror plan.

In the absence of real international cooperation to track down, arrest, try terrorists for their crimes against humanity in courts of law—rather than only using such venues selectively to advance the agenda of national liberation movements against Israeli or Western leaders considered war criminals while giving a free pass to their own barbarians—and to mete out proper judicial punishment to the guilty, countries like Israel and the US often have no choice but to take preemptive or preventive action themselves. And that means killing terrorists and their accomplices before they can strike again, often on the basis of intelligence information that would be insufficient to convict a terrorist of murder in a court of law beyond reasonable doubt. Even were there a concerted international effort to punish terrorists post factum, it would remain necessary to use lethal force to preempt and interdict terrorists in an effort to prevent acts of mass killing, particularly the many undeterrable terrorists who are prepared for martyrdom if only they can inflict mass casualties on their victim population.

When Israel in 1960 abducted Eichmann from Argentina to stand trial in Israel for genocide against the Jewish people, Argentina convened the UN Security Council and charged Israel with violating its sovereignty by committing an act of illegal force on its soil. It was the Soviet representative to the UN who, representing the apparent consensus of member states, responded: “By omitting to take measures for the timely arrest and extradition of Eichmann as a war criminal” Argentina had violated its international legal obligations. (Thomas M. Franck, Recourse to Force: State Action Against Threats and Armed Attacks (Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 112-114). Following Munich, it is equally apparent that Germany and other European states who capitulated repeatedly to terrorist threats and hijackings, released convicted mass murderers, and bribed Palestinian terror groups to avoid their territory, failed to fulfill their fundamental legal and moral obligations, leaving Israel with no recourse but to use force to punish, deter, disrupt and prevent, to whatever extent possible, the ongoing terrorist activities of Black September and those Palestinians who aided and abetted it.

III. Targeted Killing and Jewish Ethics

Spielberg in his commentary, and in the film itself, attempts to send a resoundingly negative message about the value, both moral and practical, of using force against terrorism. Instead he offers (in a Time magazine interview) that “The only thing that's going to solve this is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills.” As a veteran peace advocate who has long championed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, I find Spielberg’s nostrum singularly unhelpful and inapt. Yes, negotiations are sorely needed to “solve” the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—indeed they are well-advised right now not only with the Palestinians but with other Arab states, as Amos Oz suggests. [1] But that is not the question at hand.

The question rather is what to do now, and what was to be done then, about those who slaughter Israelis indiscriminately in the name of a political cause. “Munich” never ponders whether negotiations must sometimes be preceded by the just use of lethal force. The solution to Palestinian terrorism, much like the solution to the broader problem of Islamic terrorism, their differences notwithstanding, requires the use of both wise military counter-terror means and a foreign policy which dries up support for terror and provides viable alternatives to violence. The findings of the 9/11 Commission leave no room for doubt: success in the war on terror “demands the use of all elements of national power” including “a preventive strategy that is as much, or more, political than it is military.”

Spielberg’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, has his Golda Meir justify Israel’s new targeted killing policy in the film thus: “Every civilization must negotiate compromises with its own values.” This suggests that Jewish values would prohibit the preemptive or retaliatory killing of suspected terrorists, but that practical necessities require Israel to flout those moral and religious norms. Kushner’s comments in Newsweek suggests that in his view targeted killings are indeed antithetical to morality: he refers to “the conflict between national security and ethics” as if ethics requires nonviolence and national security impels one towards immoral violence. But there are deep problems with this conception of Jewish ethics, and of morality in general. The dichotomy Kushner erects is meant to recapitulate the conflict between egoism and altruism writ large on a national scale. Those who act out of “national security” motives are the egoists, acting solely, or primarily, in the self-interest of their own co-nationals, their fellow citizens in the state whose security is at risk; while those who act out of “ethics,” for Kushner, value the rights of others so much so that they refrain from harming the other. It is the ethical ones, for Kushner, who engage only in respectful dialogue and negotiations over justice with their enemies and refrain from force of any kind. The ethical one, in sum, is drawn to an altruistic pacifism and nonviolence, while the national security actor acts violently and immorally from egoism and the demand for collective self-protection.

But consider this account of morality from a Jewish point of view put forth by Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism, and the difference he identifies between Christian and Jewish concepts of the ethical:

In an essay on “The Character of Judaism,” Ahad Ha'am maintained that the most fundamental principle of Jewish ethics—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—does not teach us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, but as much: “The true meaning of the verse is: ‘Self-love must not be allowed to incline the scale on the side of your own advantage; love your neighbor as yourself, and then justice will necessarily decide, and you will do nothing to your neighbor that you would consider a wrong if it were done to yourself’… Judaism cannot accept the altruistic principle; it cannot put ‘other’ in the center of the circle, because that place belongs to justice, which knows no distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’…” (Ahad Ha'am, "The Character of Judaism," (1910), in Simon Noveck, ed., Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader (New York: B'nai Brith Department of Adult Jewish Education, 1963); originally published as "Between Two Opinions").
While we may question whether Ahad Ha’am has fairly depicted Christian morality as purely altruistic—it was, moreover, Catholic theologians like Augustine and Aquinas who made seminal contributions to the development of just war moral thinking—from Ahad Ha’am we learn that we have duties not only to others but to ourselves, and that we must seek to balance these duties by way of principles of justice. Some acts of self-respect and self-preservation are expressions of our moral responsibility to ourselves and our own communities, even if they may harm others. We must turn to principles of justice to understand which acts of self-protection are morally mandated, and which are violations of what justice requires.

Second, there is indeed a Jewish moral basis for the preemptive killing of a prospective murderer in the Talmud—“If a man comes to kill you, you kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a), a notion which is hardly in conflict with Jewish values, as Spielberg and Kushner suggest. The Munich massacre occurred within the context of an ongoing worldwide Palestinian terror war against Israel. “They hijacked planes, assassinated Israeli diplomats, and sent letter bombs all across the European continent,” notes Aaron Klein. In May 1972 alone, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Sabena airlines flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv, demanding the release of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, while the PFLP recruited members of the Japanese Red Army to commit an indiscriminate massacre at the arrivals terminal of Lod International Airport in Israel, killing twenty-six people and wounding seventy-six others. Palestinian terrorists had again and again risen to kill Israeli Jews, and there was no doubt that after Munich they would continue to do so.

IV. Just War, Terrorism and Preemptive Killing

In contrast to the standard context for preemptive killing or preemptive war, in which “peacetime” or an absence of armed conflict prevails between the two states until one party commits a preemptive act of war, Israeli preemptive killing of suspected terrorists has always occurred within the framework of an ongoing Palestinian war against Israel. Such acts are more akin to lawful reprisals committed after an armed conflict has already begun. Indeed, “‘defensive retaliation’ is justified when its prime motive is protective,” in the view of many legal scholars of the laws of war. “To be defensive, and therefore lawful, armed reprisals must be future oriented, and not limited to a desire to punish past transgressions.” (Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 199).

Former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir insists that “We were not engaged in vengeance. We are accused of having been guided by a desire for vengeance. That is nonsense. What we did was to concretely prevent terrorism in the future. We acted against those whom [we] thought would continue to perpetrate acts of terror…There is no defense without an offensive foundation….we viewed this as part the defensive alignment and deterrence that would put an end to open Palestinian terrorism in Europe. And I think that in the war which developed in the wake of Munich, we succeeded in putting an end to the type of terror that was perpetrated.” (Ha’aretz, Feb. 17, 2006) To be sure, one element in Israel’s motivation was surely a desire for retribution. But as Dinstein notes, “the motives driving states to action are usually multifaceted, and a tinge of retribution can probably be traced in every instance of response to force. The question is whether armed reprisals in a concrete situation go beyond retribution.”

Third, and most important, there is a crucial difference between pacifism and the just war traditions, between the endorsement of just but limited uses of force versus the view that all uses of force, and all wars, are immoral and unjust. In the pacifist schema, violence and peace are absolute polar opposites. But advocating peace, a just peace, does not require a pacifist stance against all violence or use of military force. In my view, those who take a just war approach to the use of force are the most responsible and the true advocates of peace and justice. But Spielberg’s film falls on the wrong side of this crucial distinction, confusing pacifism with peace, implicitly endorsing blanket opposition to the use of lethal force in self-defense—including anticipatory or preemptive self-defense—against those involved in murderous acts against innocents. The responsible peace advocate will instead embrace a more judicious way of criticizing inappropriate acts of force which at the same time recognizes the right of democratic states to engage in certain uses of lethal force.

I believe that the criteria for determining when an act of force is just must be redefined in the new era in which we live wherein Israel, European nations, the U.S., Australia and others are faced with asymmetrical warfare on the part of guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists. The characteristics defining such warfare include that
1. the agents of such forms of warfare against states are typically non-state groups;
2. they use stealth and do not identify themselves as combatants, refraining from wearing military uniforms;
3. they often engage in attacks against innocent civilians, often committing acts of mass murder.
In catastrophic acts of terror—like 9/11, or like the attempted bombing by Palestinian terrorists a few years ago of Israel’s largest fuel processing plant, near Tel Aviv, and another near Ashkelon, thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent lives are at risk. When terrorists begin to use non-conventional weapons—as there is good reason to believe they will in time—the loss of innocent life could be unimaginable, especially in the case of a small nuclear bomb in a major urban area. Graham Allison, the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, concludes his remarkable book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Henry Holt, 204) with the warning that if policymakers in Washington keep doing what they are currently doing about the threat, a nuclear terrorist attack on a major American city is inevitable in the next decade. At the same time, if we and other nations take necessary and appropriate steps, the ultimate catastrophe is also preventable.

If liberal democratic states do not have the right to engage in acts of lethal force for the purpose of deterrence and prevention, taking preemptive steps against those we have good reason to hold responsible for committing murderous acts against their citizens, then democracies have no effective right to self-defense to protect their citizens against such atrocities given the inherent advantages which guerrilla, terrorist or insurgent combatants have against states and against vulnerable civilians in open societies like ours. The steps democracies should take to prevent such catastrophic terrorism are wide-ranging, but they must include the judicious use of preemptive killing of suspected terrorists.

Moreover, we may accept the legitimacy of preemptive killing of suspected terrorists without necessarily embracing a broader philosophy of preventive war. But it is clear that many contemporary observers have come to recognize that there is a

"fundamental problem with the existing UN-based rules governing the use of force. These rules are based on two key principles that were the product of a particular era, the end of World War II and the start of decolonization: first, that states are sovereign equals, and second, that they should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. The changes in the international environment of the past six decades have eroded the applicability of these foundational principles and thus rendered the rules based on them untenable." (Ivo Daalder and James Steinberg, in “The Future of Preemption,” The American Interest, Winter 2005).

But in a world in which state sovereignty is being eroded by a wide range of forces, and in which unprecedented threats to human life and well-being have emerged, the traditional UN “concept of the international system no longer accords with the world as it now exists. That means that the rules regulating the use of force must be adapted to the world we do live in—a world in which sovereignty is increasingly conditional on how states behave internally, and in which the need to intervene in the internal affairs of states is growing accordingly…[T]he problem with the Bush strategy has been less the concept of preventive force itself,” conclude Daalder and Steinberg, “than its near-unilateral application to achieve very ambitious—perhaps too ambitious—ends. Unilateral preventive wars of regime change should be relegated to the past. But circumstances will undoubtedly arise in the future in which policymakers will want to have the option of using force preventively—be it to kill terrorists, prevent weapons proliferation, halt genocide, stop the spread of deadly diseases, or deal with other kinds of danger. The proper task, then, is not to bury the concept, but to make it a more limited and more legitimate tool for addressing evolving security threats.”

Daalder and Steinberg maintain that

"a state’s failure to prevent internal developments that threaten people in other states implies that the responsibility to do so also falls on the international community. And the most effective way to commute that responsibility will often involve preventive action of some kind, up to and including military action. Indeed, the most effective way to defeat many of the new threats is to act before they are imminent—before enough fissile material has been produced to make nuclear weapons; before weapons in unsecured sites or deadly diseases in laboratories have been stolen; before terrorists have been fully trained to hatch their plots; before large-scale killing or ethnic cleansing has occurred; and before a deadly pathogen has mutated and spread sickness and death around the globe. Of course, in many of these cases military intervention is not the only or the preferred means for dealing with an emerging threat. There are often good alternatives…At the same time, the threat of force and the actual use of force will sometimes be necessary. And when it is, it is often best used early.” (pp. 36-37)

V. Selective Criticism of Targeted Killings

Beyond its blanket objection to Israel’s counterterrorism policy, “Munich” can also be understood as implicitly criticizing certain assassinations, like the killing in Rome of Wael Zu’aytir, a poet and translator who had rendered the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights into Italian, the first Palestinian assassinated in the film. The film depicts him as not having had a hand in killing Israeli civilians, whether the Munich athletes or others, though we hear Ephraim justify every target to Avner as having been complicit in terrorism against Israelis. Klein states that in fact, Zu’aytir, “unlike many of those around him…denounced terrorism and violence.” (p. 119)
He believes that “Zu’aytir was not directly involved in the Munich massacre. It also seems unlikely that he had an indirect hand in the operation as a saya’an [a helper]. Uncorroborated and improperly cross-referenced intelligence information tied him to the support network of Black September in Rome. From there, a slippery slope led the politically active, low-level saya’an to the Mossad’s hit list. Looking back, his assassination was a mistake. Undoubtedly, it resulted from the genuine desire to neutralize those involved in the Munich Massacre and ‘hot’ operatives in the midst of preparing an attack. Zu’aytir was, at best, a small fish in a pond of sharks. But in the vengeance-laced atmosphere of September and October 1972, when the head of the Mossad proclaimed that the mysterious, bohemian translator had blood on his hands, no one was in the mood to dispute it.” (p. 123)

Klein notes that a wide range of Palestinians in Europe who had been involved in the “planning, execution and logistical operations tied to the massacre” were placed on the Mossad’s assassination list. “In the weeks after the massacre, dozens of Palestinian names, implicated by thin shards of intelligence at best, were passed back to Tel Aviv. There, they were almost automatically put on a secret database of targets. The Mossad and the intelligence community, with the backing of the public consensus and the parliament, were stretching the meaning of the term ‘terrorist involvement’ to the limit. Anyone vaguely connected to a terrorist organization or act was immediately placed on the top of a slippery slope; assassination waited below.” (p. 111) While the Mossad did target terrorists who were substantially involved in the Munich massacre, or in planning or executing new attacks against Israelis, it is clear now that some of those it killed were not truly complicit in terrorism against Israel.

Had the film stopped there, its criticism of targeted killings would have been selective, judicious and appropriate. A judicious approach to criticizing targeted killings, drawn from just war tradition and modern laws of war, would apply the same sorts of criteria in deciding when an armed reprisal is immoral or unlawful: “[E]ach measure of counter-force should be put to the test whether it amounts to legitimate self-defense (in response to an armed attack), satisfying the requirements of necessity [and] proportionality…” (Dinstein, p. 203) Dinstein, like Michael Walzer and William O’Brien, among many other scholars who have applied just war doctrine to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, believes that some Israeli reprisals satisfy the criteria for just uses of force, while others do not. The same can be said for Israel’s assassinations. Each must be judged on its own merits.

Israeli governments can and should be criticized for having used this method at times irresponsibly, against the wrong people, including people who were innocent of complicity with the murder of Israelis and Jews; of having engaged in it at times and in ways that have sometimes have harmed the prospects for peace.[2] But from this it does not follow that targeted killings as a rule are inimical to a prospective peace. Aaron Klein concludes that overall, while some targeted killings have provoked acts of terror in the short term, “the numbers show a steep slide in the frequency of terror attacks against Israelis and Israeli institutions abroad from 1974 to the present.”

But the message that Spielberg and Munich seek to convey is that counter-terrorism solves nothing, begets more terror, and can’t lead to peace. Some targeted killings may indeed spur further retaliations, but the cumulative effect of a good counter-terror strategy is, and has been during several periods, the 80’s, 90’s and again in recent post-intifada years, to contribute to an overall disincentive to terror and to popular support for terror. At the same time, an effective counter-terrorism strategy must be accompanied by a very robust and generous set of political incentives to the Palestinian public to embrace moderation and the pursuit of peace talks with Israel, by far-reaching efforts to negotiate a peace agreement and on-the-ground changes which improve life for ordinary Palestinians. Strong counter-terrorist efforts which are never followed by serious and sustained attempts to encourage Palestinian support for reconciliation with Israel and to exploit opportunities for peace, are misbegotten. Much the same is true of preemption which never knows when it is best to forbear the use of lethal force. Both condemn Israel to live by the sword forever, nurturing the cynical right’s self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

VI. Spielberg’s Volte Face on Israeli Counterterrorism After Munich

Having been subjected to widespread criticism for the moral message of Munich and for the politics he and Kushner attributed to the film in earlier interviews, Spielberg now insists that Israel was justified in waging its assassination campaign against Palestinian terrorists: He told Der Spiegel (January 26, 2006): “I believe that Israel’s prime minister had to respond to the monstrous provocation of Munich. Jews were being killed in Germany, and that at the Olympic Games. She could not let an act with such historic implications, such a gross transgression by the Black September movement, go unpunished. Munich was a national trauma for Israel. So in principle I think she did the right thing.” Now his revised view is that “A campaign of vengeance, even though it may contribute towards deterrence and preventing terror, can also have unintended consequences.” He draws our attention now to the damage such a campaign may wreak on the human beings who engage in assassinations: “It can change people, burden them, brutalize them, lead to their ethical decline. And even Mossad agents do not have water flowing through their veins.”

According to the new Spielberg, we are now to understand Avner’s disaffection with Israel, his abandonment of his country and his Mossad vocation, as nothing more than the dehumanizing consequences of combat on an individual, not as emblematic of the moral status of the State of Israel’s counter-terrorism policies. But can Spielberg have it both ways? The new Spielberg would have us believe, as he told Newsweek, that “’Munich’ never once attacks Israel”, and that “it barely criticizes Israel’s policy of counter-violence against violence.” Leon Wieseltier’s response to Spielberg’s new view is apt: “The latter claim is preposterous, as anybody who has seen Munich knows. The film’s very subject is the dubious moral legitimacy, and the dubious practical efficacy, of counterterrorism. If Munich is not about that, it is not about anything.” A repentant Spielberg, suddenly concerned with his image in the Jewish community, seems unwilling to stand by the principled criticisms of Israel’s counterterrorism policy that issue from his “prayer for peace.” As Wieseltier notes, “People should not engage the perplexities of morality and history if they are prepared only to be loved.”


Two books offer far more historically reliable accounts than Spielberg’s film of Israel’s counter-terror campaign following the Munich massacre, and both read like thrillers: Aaron J. Klein, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response (Random House, 2005)

Klein, who is an officer in Israel’s Military Intelligence Branch, and Time magazine’s military and intelligence affairs Jerusalem correspondent, [from] interviews over 50 former and current Mossad members, and appears to have uncovered considerable new information. The book is described by the publisher as “the first full account based on access to key players who have never before spoken, of the Munich massacre and the Israeli response…”

Simon Reeve, One Day in September: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation “Wrath of God” (New York: Arcade, 2006)

For a more general history of Israeli intelligence and counter-terrorism:
Ian Black and Benny Morris, Israel’s Secret Wars: A History of Israel’s Intelligence Services

Recommended Articles:
1. Edward Rothstein, “Seeing Terrorism as Drama With Sequels and Prequels,” New York Times, December 26, 2005
2. Walter Reich, “Something’s Missing in Spielberg’s ‘Munich,’” Washington Post, January 1, 2006
3. Michael Kotzin, “‘Munich’ As a Post-Zionist Tale,”
4. Leon Wieseltier, “Steven Spielberg Bravely Confronts His Fundamentalist Critics,” The New Republic, February 2, 2006
5. Pauline Yearwood, “‘Munich’: Is Spielberg’s New Movie Good for the Jews?”, Chicago Jewish News cover story, January 1, 2006, presents a wide range of views about the film and its ideas in interviews with various Jewish commentators.

On the Jewish and Christian just war traditions, and law and morality in war, see:

1. Alan M. Dershowitz, Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways (Norton, 2006), which attempts to develop a jurisprudence or philosophy of preemption for our contemporary political world; unsurprisingly, the challenges facing Israel play a central role in Dershowitz’s thinking.
2. Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (Cambridge University Press, 2001), by Israel’s leading scholar of the laws of war.
3. Yoram Dinstein, The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
4. William V. O’Brien, Law and Morality in Israel’s War With the PLO (Routledge, 1991), a classic and still highly relevant application of just war thinking to Israel’s counter-terrorist operations prior to Oslo.
5. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (Basic, 1977), a highly readable volume on the just war tradition, with several examples pertaining to Israel;
6. Michael Walzer, “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition,” and Aviezer Ravitzky, “Prohibited Wars in the Jewish Tradition,” in Terry Nardin, ed., The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives (Princeton, 1996);
7. Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, “The Jewish Tradition and the Gulf War,” in their Tough Choices: Jewish Perspectives on Social Justice (UAHC Press, 1992).

[1]“I think Israel would be advised to terminate the occupation through an agreement or a settlement that, if it can't be made with the Palestinians at this moment, should be made with the member states of the Arab League. I believe termination of the Israeli occupation is urgent, and is in Israel's best interests and can be implemented as a part of an Israel-Arab comprehensive agreement.” Amos Oz interview, The Nation (online) “Curing Fanaticism” by Jon Wiener, February 1, 2006.

[2]Aaron Klein observes that after Munich, Israel often went after Palestinian diplomats in Europe who were not directly responsible for the Munich massacre or for acts of terrorism against Israelis, simply because they were largely unprotected and accessible, whereas the real perpetrators of Munich—those few who survived and those involved behind the scenes in planning and orchestrating it—were living in third world countries with much protection so that Israel found it virtually impossible to go after them. (There was one notable exception to this rule, the 1972 commando operation against several prominent Palestinian terrorist masterminds in Beirut by the IDF’s special anti-terrorist force, Sayeret Matkal, in which the young Ehud Barak played a prominent role.) But this was the exception that proved the rule.