Iran and Peter Beinart roil the American Jewish pot
Beinart is cementing his role as U.S. Jewry's enfant terrible even as J Street, which will host him this weekend, is engaged in detente with the Israeli embassy. Meanwhile, Iran is proving a boon for Jewish fund-raising.
1. Pro-Israel organizations rarely have good news to share; alarming news about Israel is good for fund-raising. For example, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to supporters in mid-February titled "Breaking news: Iranian calls to destroy Jewish people." It gave examples of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei's vitriol, along with a detailed plan to annihilate Israel posted on a website run by the head of the Iranian parliament's research center.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder, asked supporters for an emergency contribution as soon as possible, because "there is not a moment to waste as we confront the rapidly evolving situation in the Middle East." He urged donors to fight "Iran's genocidal threats against Israel and the Jewish people worldwide" with contributions starting at $50 and ending with an open bracket, left to the donor's generosity. The center's spokesperson didn't respond when asked how the fund-raising effort is going.
Across the ocean, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was busy downplaying the Iranian threat. "We categorically condemned" the statements made about Israel by Iran's president and other Iranian officials, Lavrov told Russia's Kommersant newspaper. "It's uncivilized and unworthy of such an ancient country and people with their great culture." He said he sees anti-Israel rhetoric mainly as serving domestic and foreign policy goals, "to keep in an anti-Israeli orbit those on whom Iran wishes to rely in the neighborhood."
But, Lavrov added, "I am absolutely convinced that Iran would never do it," if only because the region is so small: "Israel and Palestine. To threaten to destroy Israel and spare Palestine is probably unrealistic."
2. There was one tiny bit of good news: The Israel Project's European staffers, visiting Washington, DC, proudly told Haaretz that during meetings with 21 high-ranking European diplomats serving in the U.S. capital, they were surprised to find a much more positive attitude toward Israel than ever before.
On possible reason, they speculated, is that the Iranian issue has reached "a critical point" for the European Union, which is very preoccupied by it. Another is that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is in hibernation - until the end of the U.S. presidential election, until after the Israeli elections, or until the Iranian issue is resolved.
Do these diplomats really reflect the atmosphere at home, I asked, or is it more the Washington influence?
Well, the TIP staffers said, in the past, European diplomats were not shy about making these meetings utterly uncomfortable, with long tirades against Israeli policies. This time, even the settlements were paid no more than lip service, and not mentioned at all in many meetings.
Some diplomats were worried that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas might leave the stage, with no clear alternative. On Syria, no big surprise, nobody really knows what to do. And they fear a strike against Iran might prove disastrous to their economies. Therefore, sanctions are preferable.
3. But sanctions are easier said than done. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a message to Congress that Washington has granted exemptions from sanctions to financial institutions in 11 of the 23 countries that import Iranian crude, due to "significant cuts" in their Iranian oil imports.
Japan was presented by a senior administration official as a model for making efforts to put pressure on Iran: Despite its own extremely troubled year, including the tsunami and the Fukushima reactor meltdown, it cut its oil imports from Iran by 15 to 22 percent.
Now, for 180 days, financial institutions in these countries are exempt from the threat of being cut off from the U.S. financial system. The U.S. administration hopes Iran's other customers will follow suit - including top crude importers like India and China.
But when IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warns that oil prices could jump 20 to 30 percent if Iran's crude supply is disrupted, such hopes can only go so far.
4. J Street still has its detractors, but at least Israel's embassy in America finally seems to be mending fences with the dovish pro-Israel lobby - to some extent. The lobby's annual conference is titled "Making history," but Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren won't be making history by setting foot in the Convention Center in Washington this weekend. Still, unlike last year, when no official embassy representative was sent, or the year before, when the embassy representative kept as low a profile as possible, this time, Deputy Head of Mission Barukh Binah will attend and even speak.
An embassy source said relations with the lobby have improved, because it has recently taken positions that are more acceptable to the Israeli government - even rejecting the recent call by one of its featured conference speakers, Peter Beinart, for boycotting Jewish settlements. "Israel prefers 'critical dialogue' to no dialogue," stressed the source. "We never actually boycotted them. Binah has the title of ambassador, and until recently used to be responsible for U.S.-Israeli relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He's a serious representative."
J Street seemed quite content. "We are pleased to have the opportunity to hear from Israeli Embassy Deputy Head of Mission Barukh Binah," said Jessica Rosenblum, director of media and communications. "Our leadership and activists are interested in further strengthening our relationship with the Government of Israel's official representatives in the United States, and we appreciate that the embassy is sending such a high-ranking diplomat to attend our conference."
The Obama Administration will send Tony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. It seems that President Barack Obama has decided to bet on AIPAC after all.
One of the major challenges for this year's J Street conference will be to prove that the two-state solution is not dead yet. This year, just keeping the drumbeat of peace alive is not trivial.
One of my web friends who had planned to go to the conference told me he decided to skip it after a week-long visit to Israel. "After speaking with many of my friends and family I realize that the so-called 'two-state solution' is no longer a viable option," he wrote.
"Most Israelis truly believe - time will tell if rightly or wrongly - that there is no partner on the Palestinian side. They understandably perceive Israel's biggest pressing challenge as a nuclear Iran. The Likud party is expected to win 35-37 seats in the next parliamentary election, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for any compromises in the foreseeable future.
"A new bold idea is desperately needed and I don't see it coming on the horizon. I therefore must honestly conclude that at the moment, J Street's ideas, though theoretically sound, are realistically unattainable. Therefore, I've decided to skip the upcoming conference in DC."
5. If the two-state solution proves unexciting this year, at least Beinart has firmly established his credentials as the Jewish establishment's enfant terrible, repeatedly stirring up stinging conversations on Zionism and why the heck the younger generation of American Jews should care.
Not for attribution, Israeli officials castigate Beinart as someone "who found his profitable niche and continues to dig himself deeper into the controversy." There are also some angry on-record attacks against his new book, "The crisis of Zionism," for being biased, not offering a real alternative, etc. His recent New York Times op-ed provoked a storm as well.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren wrote on his Facebook page: "Peter Beinart's call ("To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements," New York Times, 3.19.12 ) places him well beyond the Israeli mainstream, the moderate left, and the vast majority of Israelis who care about peace. The call for boycotting all products made by Israeli communities outside of Jerusalem and beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines is supported only by a marginal and highly radical fringe. Beinart's position, moreover, absolves the Palestinians of any responsibility for the current situation, including their rejection of previous peace offers, their support for terror, and their refusal to negotiate with Israel for the past three years. By reducing the Palestinians to two-dimensional props in an Israeli drama, Beinart deprives them of agency and indeed undermines his own thesis. Without an active Palestinian commitment to a two-state solution - irrespective of boycotts - the peace Beinart seeks cannot be achieved."
But who wants to revive this boring, 20-year-old peace process? It's much more exciting to criticize Beinart.