Road 443: More Evidence of a Long Deception

Gershom Gorenberg My recent piece at The Daily Beast brings new evidence that the government presented a deceptive cover story to the Supreme Court about the building of Road 443. I arrived back in Israel on a pre-dawn flight and decided to take the minibus shuttle to Jerusalem rather than splurging on a taxi. At … Read moreRoad 443: More Evidence of a Long Deception

On the Eve of Meeting Obama, Is Netanyahu Listening to Himself?

Gershom Gorenberg

As the prime minister prepares for his next White House appointment, my latest piece at The American Prospect lays out the weaknesses in Bibi’s position on Iran:

When Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling  Monday, I doubt he’ll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren’t in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along.

Netanyahu’s political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st-century Republican and a mid-20th-century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama’s electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday.

Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they are not quite talking to each other. Netanyahu’s goals are to get Obama to commit himself to conditions for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran will reject and to avoid paying with any concessions to America’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Syria will also be on the agenda. As always, Netanyahu will try to get Congress to take his more hawkish stance against the president, with encouragement from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. But there are contradictions—logical, strategic, political, and personal—in Netanyahu’s stance that weaken him even before the conversation with Obama begins.

Read moreOn the Eve of Meeting Obama, Is Netanyahu Listening to Himself?

Between Two Catastrophes: Look at Syria, and Question Everyone’s Stories about 1948

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column is up at The Daily Beast:

Lebanon is teeming with refugees. This isn’t news, you might say. Palestinian refugees have dwelt in Lebanon since 1948. Back then, between 100,000 and 130,000 people, expecting a temporary sojourn, entered a country with a population perhaps ten times that number. The news is the Syrians: Over 700,000 who have fled the current catastrophe, according to the United Nations; a million according to the Lebanese government; possibly 1.4 million if you include Syrian guest workers who came before the war, in a country whose current population may be only three times that number.

That Lebanon is still functioning is a miracle. Only slightly less startling, the refugees aren’t living in vast tent cities; they’re in rented apartments and schools and empty buildings. This, I’m told, is partly due to a lesson that Lebanon learned after 1948: Refugee camps can become autonomous armed enclaves.

There are also lessons about 1948 to be learned—very carefully—from today’s crisis. Not that history repeats itself. The Syrian catastrophe can’t resolve arguments about what happened 65 years ago. It can, however, raise necessary questions about the narratives that both Israelis and Palestinians tell about 1948.

Read moreBetween Two Catastrophes: Look at Syria, and Question Everyone’s Stories about 1948

Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis

Whether or not the United States uses arms in Syria, it needs to use money and visas to relieve suffering

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at The American Prospect:

UNHCR map of Syrian refugees

Two million refugees from Syria. The figure was announced last week and easily missed amid headlines about the Tomahawks that would or would not be fired at targets dear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Refugees are less dramatic than cruise missiles, less dramatic even than wrangling about a Security Council resolution on Syria’s poison-gas arsenal.

Yet the exodus from the civil war-torn country represents a humanitarian crisis no less stark, a moral demand no less pressing, than the use of chemical weapons. It is a crisis which has policy responses that do not involve bombs, that do not require a debate about America and Europe re-entering the Middle East’s wars. They do, however, demand spending money and a willingness to take in refugees on a new and much larger scale. In the end, these costs pale in comparison to the costs of war.

Two million refugees, in truth, is a careful understatement.

Read moreMeanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis

Europe Draws The (Green) Line

Gershom Gorenberg

My new article is up at the American Prospect:

Survey of Israel map This is the chronicle of a crisis foretold years in advance,” said the Israeli ex-ambassador to Germany, in that petulant tone of a diplomat working very hard not to sound infuriated. Shimon Stein was trying to explain new European Union sanctions against Israeli settlements. Neither journalists nor politicians should sound so shocked by the EU move, he lectured the anchor of state radio’s morning news program. He was right, but he was trying to outshout a hurricane of public anger and disbelief. The anchor herself had begun the show with a riff of indignant surprise that the EU considered her Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem to be a settlement.

Of course, the EU position has consistently been that the country called Israel is defined by its pre-1967 borders, or Green Line—and that anything built beyond those borders is not part of Israel. The sanctions are designed to give more teeth to that position. Under new budget guidelines, EU bodies must make sure not to fund any Israeli activities in occupied territory. Any future agreements between the European Union and Israel must explicitly state that they apply only within the pre-’67 lines. Let’s be clear: This is not an economic boycott of Israel, nor a declaration that Israel is an apartheid state. Rather, the EU is drawing the distinction between legitimate Israel and illegitimate settlements with a thick marker. In the sanctions debate, the Europeans are taking a moderate stance: pro-Israel, anti-occupation.

Read moreEurope Draws The (Green) Line

For Chief Rabbi, Vote Nobody (If Only You Could Vote)

Gershom Gorenberg

I explain why in my latest piece at The Daily Beast:

The election will take place next Wednesday. Just 150 electors, most of whom lack the slightest claim to represent the public, will choose two new chief rabbis for the state of Israel. The winners—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbi—will become the heads of the state rabbinic bureaucracy and will officially speak for Judaism in the State of Israel. If there’s anything more painfully absurd than the way the chief rabbis are chosen, it’s the idea of official state Judaism.

The politicking has gone on for months. Political parties tried crassly to make deals to amend the Chief Rabbinate Law, aiming to help particular candidates. The deals all failed. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, master of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, dithered about which of his sons to run for Sephardi chief rabbi. Last week police questioned his son Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of the city of Holon, on corruption charges, so the Shas leader named his son Yitzhak Yosef instead. Since a majority of the electors are state-salaried religious functionaries, a great many tied to Shas, Rabbi Ovadia’s choice could be decisive. Attacking the favored Ashkenazi candidate of relatively liberal religious Zionist politicians, Rabbi Ovadia said that electing Rabbi David Stav would be akin to “putting an idol in the Temple.” On Saturday night, another leading Shas rabbi, Shalom Cohen, declared that all religious Zionists are “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. “Anti-Semites” would be much too soft a translation.

None of this has added any honor to Judaism.

Read moreFor Chief Rabbi, Vote Nobody (If Only You Could Vote)

The War Next Door

Horrifying as the Syrian civil war is, Israel’s best policy option is to stay out

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

In an age-long past—we’re talking about more than two years ago—the country to Israel’s northeast was ruled by a stable but despotic regime. After the battering that it took in its 1973 war with Israel, Syria carefully kept the de facto border quiet. But the regime outsourced the conflict to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, so that the bloodletting between the countries never really stopped. Meanwhile the ruling Assad dynasty stockpiled missiles and poison gas.

It would be hard to say that anyone in Israel is exactly nostalgic for those bad old days. Then again, it’s hard to find anyone who expects better days ahead. The first thing that a local Syria-watcher or ex-general will tell you is that the Israeli government hasn’t managed to decide what it wants to see happen in Syria. The second thing that she or he will say is that this doesn’t really matter: Israel can’t influence the outcome, and all the realistic possibilities look awful. Right now, even the meager hope for a stable regime in Damascus, no matter how anti-Israel, sounds utopian. The direct, public involvement of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war hasn’t significantly changed this pessimistic perspective.

Read moreThe War Next Door

Revolution Until Imprisonment:

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column at The American Prospect:

PosterSidney Rittenberg’s face fills the screen in a college auditorium where The Revolutionary is being shown. His eyebrows are bold brushstrokes of white above narrowed, intent eyes. His lips are firm. He has the wrinkles and gnarled neck of an old man. He does not, however, look like a man who is 90 years old, or like one battered by spending 16 of those years in solitary confinement in China for the offense, ultimately, of believing too deeply in the Party and the revolution. “If you put one drop into the long river of human history, that’s immortal … You either make a difference or you don’t make a difference,” Rittenberg says to the camera in his Southern gentleman’s drawl. This is his credo. Outside the auditorium windows, night has fallen. Rittenberg’s larger-than-life face is reflected, translucent, in the glass, as if his memory were speaking out of the darkness. “History,” he says wryly, “rolled right over me.”

Read moreRevolution Until Imprisonment:

Kerry is Right: The Israel Lobby Needs to Lobby Israel

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

“Israel lobby” is a term that could have two meanings, if you think about it. In standard Washington usage, it refers to American groups—often but not always Jewish—that lobby the U.S. Congress and White House on behalf of Israel, or rather on behalf of policies that those groups think are good for Israel. But there’s another possible meaning, as John Kerry implied in a speech to the American Jewish Committee on Monday: Americans, especially Jews, lobbying the Israeli government.

This already happens. Recently American Jews have publicly pushed for changes in Israeli policy on two issues. In both cases, though, they were arguing about deck chairs on the Titanic: how much they cost, and who gets to sit in them. Speaking to the AJC’s Global Forum, the secretary of state warned that the ship is sailing into an iceberg. His listeners, he said, should urge, beg, nudge, and bagger the captain and crew to change course.

Here’s one example of reverse Israel lobbying: Last month, the Israeli cabinet was about to vote on the national budget. One item would have eliminated an exemption from Value Added Tax for tourists. That is, a foreigner would have to pay tax on her hotel room or car rental, just like an Israeli. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone,

Read moreKerry is Right: The Israel Lobby Needs to Lobby Israel

A Case of Mistaken Identity

The Faux Israeli Everyman, Naftali Bennett, Appoints His Extremist Rabbi To Teach Us Judaism

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest at The Daily Beast:

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of religious services, has decided to appoint Rabbi Avihai Ronski to head a brand-new Jewish Identity Administration.

One could simply say, “Ronski is the wrong man for the job.” But there’s a logical flaw in that sentence. The job shouldn’t exist, so no one could be right for it. Furthermore, the post will be in a ministry that only does a disservice to religion. And the fact that Naftali Bennett sees Ronski as his master and teacher provides additional proof that Bennett shouldn’t be minister of anything.

Let’s start with Ronski,

Read moreA Case of Mistaken Identity

But Austerity Works So Well

Gershom Gorenberg

At a slight delay, here’s my column  from the American Prospect on the Lapid-Netanyahu budget:

A familiar tale: In a small country on the Mediterranean rim, the government chooses to solve an economic crisis by enacting an austerity budget. Regressive taxes will rise. Aid to families will be cut. Less will be left of the welfare state built decades ago. The novice finance minister promises this will heal the economy.

As the people of that unhappy land say: Happy are those who believe.

Read moreBut Austerity Works So Well

The Syrian Disconnection

Why Israel Can’t Be Part of Obama’s Calculus on Syria

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

From Tel Aviv, so the usual map sites say, you could drive to Damascus in three hours and 20 minutes, if only there were no borders, barbed wire or war in the way. From vacation cottages in the Upper Galilee, where city people go to find some quiet, you can look across the Jordan to the ridge that barely blocks a view of the Syrian capital. Just past the horizon, impossibly close to us, people are killing their countrymen. Cities are being crushed into rubble.

Israel is a place with very little agreement on anything. Perhaps the closest thing to a national emotional consensus is horror at what’s happening in Syria. But there’s also unusually wide agreement, especially among policy and strategic experts, that Israel can do pretty much nothing to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

Read moreThe Syrian Disconnection