Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

  • When Andrew Sullivan and I Agree

    He's wrong about plenty -- but not about everything.

    Yesterday, I wrote the following:

    "Is an American president 'pro-Israel' if he neglects to mention to the Israeli leadership his worries about Israel's future as a Jewish-majority democracy, in which freedom of speech is sacred and the rights of minorities are protected? Is it 'pro-Israel' to not point out the various demographic, moral and security challenges presented to Israel by the continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank?"

    Andrew Sullivan made this his "Question of the Day," which caused several Goldblog readers to issue complaints, like this particularly trolly one:

    "I don't know if you noticed, but Andrew is approvingly citing your questioning of how to define pro-Israel. Doesn't it bother you that Andrew, who hates Israel, is citing you approvingly? How can you be pro-Israel if Andrew Sullivan is agreeing with you?"

    Obviously, in general, I think Andrew has become hyperbolically anti-Israel, but just because he tends to exaggerate Israel's faults (or, more to the point, because he presents an oversimplified picture of the Middle East, and of American foreign policy in the Middle East) doesn't mean he's wrong about everything. And if he has come to the conclusion that the continued settlement of the West Bank poses an existential threat to Israel's future as a Jewish democracy, well, what I am supposed to do? Tell him he's wrong? Why would I do that? He's right. 

  • 'The Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes'

    If you're an American, the election may be a big deal. If you live overseas, it probably won't change much at all.

    I just ran into an old friend of mine in the lobby of an Amman hotel who said something cutting and true-sounding about the American election. This old friend is Palestinian, from the West Bank, who now works in a completely different conflict zone for an international NGO. He asked me why everyone keeps talking about tomorrow's race as the "most important election of our lifetimes." I said that this is partially campaign rhetoric, but partially rooted in reality -- the two men running for president have fairly different visions about the role of government in the lives of Americans on issues of health care, taxation, and so on. His response: "For the rest of the world, this is the most important election of our lifetimes only if you're three years old."

    His argument, which isn't actually disputable, is that Romney and Obama really do resemble each other in many ways in their approach to the world.  On the important questions facing the region I'm currently visiting, there's really not that much difference between them. Continued support for Gulf monarchies -- check. Continued support for Israel and its qualitative military edge -- check. Continued use of drones -- check. Continued use of foreign aid as a policy tool -- check. Continued sanctions on Iran -- check again. I happen to think that Obama would be more effective next year in managing the Iran crisis than Romney would be, but their opinions on the issue aren't so fundamentally different.

    Both Obama and Romney are, in some ways, pragmatic moderate Republicans, of the sort that used to exist in great numbers. (Really, how much different is Barack Obama from George H.W. Bush on many issues?)  I don't agree with my friend on much -- he would like to see Israel sanctioned and isolated, for instance -- but I don't think he's wrong to assume that American foreign policy won't shift much, no matter which man wins.

  • Why Obama Is Better for Israel Than Romney Is

    It's not that Romney isn't devoted to Israel, or to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, so much as the type of devotion he expresses.

    I'm in a transit lounge in Paris, heading for hotter places, but I wanted to put down a few thoughts about the presidential election and the Middle East. Forgive the choppiness; I have to get on a plane shortly. Maybe I'll write more when I arrive. Or maybe I'll just collapse in an Ambien heap.

    Last week, in a dialogue with the sometimes-dyspeptic but always thoughtful Yossi Klein Halevi, I argued that Israel's bipartisan support in America is under threat:

    If Romney wins, and if Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power in Israel, I can almost guarantee you that you will see a melting away of whatever Democratic support there is for tough action against Iran, and a melting away of whatever liberal support there still remains for a strong America-Israel relationship. American support is a pillar of Israeli national security policy. Israel cannot thrive - and maybe it can't survive - in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. But it will also have difficulty surviving without American support, and I'm telling you, medium- to long-term, Israel could be in trouble in the U.S.

    I believe I was somewhat hyperbolic in asserting that a "melting away" of liberal support for a strong America-Israel relationship is almost guaranteed (Yossi can get me going), but I think the underlying truth remains: Republicans have had a good deal of success turning Israel into a partisan issue, mainly by misrepresenting President Obama's record (but also helped by certain Obama missteps), and if they continue to press their case, many Democrats will find supporting Israel distasteful -- they will lump supporters of Israel in the same category they reserve for climate-change-denying anti-choice Obamacare haters. This would be very dangerous for Israel.

    Maybe it's all going to happen anyway: Israel, after all, is moving rightward (it has a foreign minister, the second-most powerful man in Israel, who would be a more appropriate office-holder in Putin's Russia than in a liberal democracy), and there is no hope on the horizon for a two-state solution. Forty-five years of occupation has had a cumulative effect on Israel's reputation among progressive-minded people. The narrative long-ago shifted -- when I was a kid, the Israel Day parade in New York was a carnival of liberalism: unions and civil rights groups and secular people of all shapes and colors, standing up for plucky little Israel. Now, it's more and more an Orthodox parade, and support for Israel is strongest among conservative evangelicals, many of whom do not know actual Jews but have a theological vision of what Jews are, and what they should be.

    A few months ago, I interviewed my friend Kurt Andersen, the novelist, here on Goldblog, about his latest book, "True Believers," in which Israel plays a small but highly symbolic role. In 1967, Kurt's very not-Jewish family in Nebraska threw a party to celebrate Israel's victory in the Six-Day War. The feeling that inspired that party, he said, has dissipated:

    For sure Israel remains vastly more popular among Americans than any country in its part of the world. But that's a very low bar. A few years ago at a swank Manhattan dinner party I got in a serious shouting argument with a Brit who'd said that Israel was a worse country than its neighbors. Americans have not yet become reflexive Euro-style anti-Israelites in significant numbers. But the country has gone in my lifetime from being our bestest non-European buddy, our spunky amazing inspiring heroic pal, to being...a friend, a friend who's in a tragic and terrible tight spot, a friend most Americans these days would prefer not to think too much about.

    I think it is true that Israel remains popular across a large swath of America. I also think it's true that this could change, as it already has among many liberals, including among some liberal American Jews. Barack Obama, who is pro-Israel -- let me repeat that: Barack Obama, who is pro-Israel -- has done a lousy job managing the peace process, and a lousy job understanding, and manipulating, Benjamin Netanyahu, but he has done a stellar job defending Israel's fundamental rights against many foes -- including from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly --  and he has done an outstanding job making sure that Israel receives the highest-level military cooperation with the U.S. possible. Mainly what he has done is try, quite strenuously, to remind Democrats why their party has traditionally supported a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

    I don't doubt that Mitt Romney is devoted to Israel, and I don't doubt that he's committed, in his own mind, to stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. But the question here has to do with the type of devotion he expresses, and with his ability to actually stop Iran. I've argued before that Romney would face some obvious problems in the crisis with Iran: His foreign policy team will be inexperienced; as a Republican, he would face extraordinary opposition from a revitalized anti-war movement and from Democrats in Congress; he himself doesn't want to gain the reputation George W, Bush gained for himself, and so on. Obama, as I have argued in this space, over and over again, is in a better position to carry through his promise to keep Iran from going nuclear, and he has proven he is cold-blooded enough to use force if he thinks American interests are at stake. As he has said, over and over again (including in this space), he believes it is a "profound" American national security interest to stop Iran. In the matter of Iran, I believe Israel is better off with Obama in the presidency.

    There is one wrinkle: I've also argued that the Iranians may be more apt to believe that Romney is crazy enough to attack them, and so they might be more apt to negotiate an end to their nuclear program for fear of a Republican president (there's not much evidence available to suggest that the regime is frightened of Obama, in part because Obama has been undermined on occasion by members of his own administration who have publicly labeled the military option a terrible idea. It may be a terrible idea, but it doesn't help Obama's negotiating position when his own employees say so publicly). One reason to discount a potential Romney-is-crazy-like-Nixon ploy is that I have serious doubts about whether the Iranian regime will give up its nuclear program, no matter who is president.

    One final-for-now thought, that runs counter to a certain prevailing narrative about what it means to be pro-Israel. I'll pose it as a question: Is an American president "pro-Israel" if he neglects to mention to the Israeli leadership his worries about Israel's future as a Jewish-majority democracy, in which freedom of speech is sacred and the rights of minorities are protected? Is it "pro-Israel" to not point out the various demographic, moral and security challenges presented to Israel by the continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank? Obama did a poor job, in his first term, helping Israelis analyze their existential dilemmas, save the existential dilemma posed by an Iranian bomb. But if wins, he could try to re-set (to borrow a term) his relationship with Netanyahu, and he could raise the sort of questions privately that need to be asked. (I'll address the issue of whether putting public daylight between Israel and America is a good, or bad, thing, from an instrumental, not moral, point of view, in a later post).

    If I thought that Romney were willing to ask these hard questions about Israel's future, I would be more apt to suggest that he would be good for Israel. But there's no proof that he would engage Netanyahu in this sort of dialogue.  Being pro-Israel means many contradictory things these days: Standing against Iran's annihilationist impulses; defending the justice of the Jewish national liberation movement; thwarting the jihadist desire to hurt Jews. But it also means finding a way to help Israel think through the consequences of its policies on the West Bank, before it is too late. The truth is, Israel isn't best served by either Romney or Obama. What it needs is a concentrated dose of Bill Clinton. 

  • So, Israel Nearly Attacked Iran in 2010; Who'd a Thunk It?

    More evidence of Netanyahu's determination to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

    From Jodi Rudoren

    An Israeli news channel reported Sunday night that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked the Israeli military in 2010 to prepare for an imminent attack on the Iranian nuclear program, but that their efforts were blocked by concerns over whether the military could do so and whether the men had the authority to give such an order.

    The report, by the respected investigative journalist Ilana Dayan, came in the form of a promotional preview for an hourlong documentary about Israel's decision-making process regarding Iran, which is scheduled to be broadcast Monday night. Ms. Dayan said on the channel's evening newscast on Sunday that Mr. Netanyahu, in a meeting with a small circle of top ministers, turned to Gabi Ashkenazi, the head of the Israeli Defense Forces at the time, and told him to "set the systems for P-plus," a term meaning that an operation would start soon.

    (...)

    Mr. Ashkenazi was quoted saying of the P-plus order: "This is not something you do unless you are certain you want to execute at the end. This accordion will make music if you keep playing it." But Mr. Barak told Ms. Dayan that "it is not true that creating a situation where the I.D.F. and the country's operational systems are, for a few hours or for a few days, on alert to carry out certain operations means the state of Israel is compelled to act."

    "Eventually, at the moment of truth, the answer that was given was that, in fact, the ability did not exist," Mr. Barak said in the clip that was shown on Sunday.

    I would point Goldblog readers to this story in The Atlantic, "The Point of No Return," from 2010, in which I suggested that Netanyahu and Barak were quite serious then about launching an attack. The new Ilana Dayan report makes the case that Netanyahu and Barak were ready to order the strike, but the now-deposed Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, fought back vociferously. The most interesting suggestion in the previews of this blockbuster report comes from Barak, who is quoted as sayng: "Eventually, at the moment of truth, the answer that was given was that, in fact, the ability did not exist."

    A kind of generals' coup in reverse -- the ultimate argument the IDF high command has against an Iran strike is that it can't pull it off. This is not a position uniformly held in the IDF; some of the generals I spoke to in the spring and summer of 2010 believed the Israeli Air Force could successfully attack Iran's nuclear facilities. This issue will remain murky for some time, but it does raise the obvious question, to which people have only partial answers: Has the Israeli security establishment shifted from this position privately? Publicly -- or at least, outside their command posts -- the IDF leadership says today it can pull off a strike. But maybe this is a bluff.

    What is not a bluff -- and what, apparently, was never a bluff -- was Netanyahu's determination to launch a strike. 

  • The Lieberman Threat

    Former Israeli negotiator Uri Savir thinks that the current Israeli foreign minister has no feeling for democracy.

    Not Joe, the other one. It's very hard to argue with this, from Uri Savir, who thinks that Avigdor Lieberman has no feeling for democracy:

    The good thing about Liberman is that he never hides his views; he says what he means. The dangerous thing is that he actually means what he says. If he could, he would outlaw much of the left-leaning civil society, as he attempted in his party's legislative efforts. He is racist toward Arabs, as exemplified by hundreds of statements and by the legislation attempt on - "no loyalty, no citizenship." He threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam in Egypt (2001) and to depose Mahmoud Abbas (2012). These are his real aspirations and now, if elected, he can pursue them.

    The new Likud Beytenu alliance has turned these elections from a referendum on policies to one on the very nature of our socio-political system. A Netanyahu-Liberman victory would endanger our very democratic and Jewish nature, isolate us regionally and move the clock forward on a binational state which would be boycotted the world over.

  • Christie and Springsteen, Updated

    I look forward to watching Chris Christie introduce Springsteen at a Stone Pony benefit concert in the near future.

    Well, Bruce showed himself to be magnanimous last night during a concert in Rochester. He said from the stage:

    "We're a band that you can't separate from the Jersey shore -- still basically a glorified bar band... at your service! So we're gonna do this tonight from our hometown to your hometown. We'll send this out to all the people working down there: the police officers, the firemen, and also to the Governor, who has done such a hard job this past week."

    I look forward to watching Chris Christie introduce Springsteen at a Stone Pony benefit concert in the near future.

  • Why Exactly Is Chris Christie Subverting Mitt Romney?

    Chris Christie is love-bombing President Obama -- the man he labeled clueless just last week -- and Maureen Dowd is asking why.

    Chris Christie is love-bombing President Obama -- the man he labeled clueless just last week -- and Maureen Dowd is asking why:

    White House officials seemed a bit flummoxed by Christie's bearhug. "It's unnerving," one laughed, noting how odd it is that a Romney big gun might help break the stubborn tie in the electorate in Obama's favor.

    They speculate that Christie, who always puts Christie first, has decided that it's better for his presidential ambitions to be a maverick blue-state governor with a Democratic chief executive exiting in 2016 than to have President Romney and Tea-Party Republicans in Congress pulling him over to the extreme right for the next eight years. He also knows he'll need a boatload of federal cash to make his state whole again.

    Here are three theories about Christie:
    1) The first, most benign theory: Christie, in my experience, is a deeply emotional and highly sentimental man, and he is torn-up about the devastation along the Jersey Shore. The support he's received from President Obama -- the support he receives from anyone -- at such a wrenching moment, makes him inordinately grateful. And President Obama has been extremely attentive.

    2) To add to Maureen's theory, Christie is an impatient guy, and the idea of running in 2016 is much more appealing to him than running in 2020. He will have faded from memory by 2020, in any case; plus Paul Ryan, who will have been vice president for four or eight years, would be a formidable challenger. For 2016, Christie is in the top-tier of Republican candidates. In 2020, who knows?

    3) Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen. (This story, by yours truly, explains why.)  Bruce Springsteen loves Barack Obama. Bruce Springsteen does not love Chris Christie. Being overtly supportive of Barack Obama might get Chris Christie his holy grail: The approval of Springsteen, even a meeting with him. Believe me -- he'd rather meet with Springsteen than with Obama, or anyone else.

    For what it's worth, I think the explanation for Christie's effusiveness is mostly 1) with some 2). The third explanation might be true at a more subconscious level. 

  • The Power of Credible Threats at Work?

    "The moment of truth" in the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program might have just been delayed by eight to ten months.

    Now, admittedly, Ehud Barak might not be the most reliable narrator of the Iran nuclear crisis, but his comments this week are still interesting:

    Barak told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper that an immediate crisis was avoided when Iran chose to use more than a third of its medium-enriched uranium for civilian purposes earlier this year.

    He told the paper that the decision "allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to ten months".

    "There could be at least three explanations. One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer," he said.

    "It could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time. It could be a way of telling the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) 'oh we comply with our commitments'."

    Analysts say Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs if it were refined to a high degree, but may still be a few years away from being able to assemble a missile if it decided to go down that path.
  • Romney's Critique of Obama's Iran Policy

    It's been in the interest of Obama to paint Romney as a warmonger, and in the interest of Romney to paint Obama as an appeaser. But their Iran policies are not so far apart.

    Here is an example of the b.s. of all campaigns, everywhere. Just before last week's foreign policy debate, the Obama campaign sent out a bulletin entitled "Romnesia, Foreign Policy Edition," which contained the following bullet item:

    ROMNEY HAS ISSUED VOLATILE RHETORIC ON IRAN THREATENING "IF YOU WANT PEACE, PREPARE FOR WAR"

    Romney To Iran: "If You Want Peace, Prepare For War." "The United States needs a very different policy. Si vis pacem, para bellum. That is a Latin phrase, but the ayatollahs will have no trouble understanding its meaning from a Romney administration: If you want peace, prepare for war."

    Scary, no? Except that the idea of keeping the peace by preparing for war has been American doctrine, and everyone else's doctrine, for just about ever. Could you imagine a Romney campaign press release headlined: "Obama Secretly Orders Pentagon to Prepare for War in Persian Gulf"? This would be a perfectly true statement. So would "Obama Orders Pentagon to Prepare for War Against North Korea" and "Obama Spends Billions to Target World with Nukes." 

    I mention this only to make the observation that the Iran policies of Obama and Romney are actually not so far apart. They are both opposed to containment, they both support tough sanctions and they both hold out the option of military action should Iran continue down its current path.  It's been in the interest of Obama to paint Romney as a warmonger, and in the interest of Romney to paint Obama as an appeaser, but I think both of them are united in the idea that a military confrontation to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold may be necessary. Obama would go into 2013 with certain advantages -- as I've written before, I think Obama is more likely than Romney to move toward military action, particularly in the short-term, if the moment comes (which is not something that Sheldon Adelson wants to hear), but I've come to believe that there is a slightly better chance that the Iranian regime would show up for serious negotiations with Romney as president. 

    Why? President Obama has been undermined from time to time by his own team on the Iran question -- whenever a senior official of his administration analyzes publicly the dangers of a military confrontation to the U.S., we should assume the Iranian leaders breathe a sigh of relief, and make the calculations that Obama is bluffing on military action.  So far at least, Romney's people haven't undermined him the same way. In any case, the Iranians most likely believe that the Republicans are more bellicose. (Mind you, I don't think the Iranians are very much interested in making the deal the U.S. wants them to make, but this could change as sanctions become more punishing.)

    All this is a roundabout way of getting to the debate, and Romney's seemingly new emphasis on seeking a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear program. Like some hawks, and some doves, I asked myself if Romney was shaking the Etch-a-Sketch, and so I e-mailed him some questions about his Iran thinking. Here are some of his e-mailed answers, which appear in my Bloomberg View column today:

    "I have always talked about the diplomatic process," he wrote. "I will not rule out diplomatic options, so long as we would not be rewarding bad behavior and so long as the Iranian leadership was truly cornered and ready to change its behavior. A crumbling economy is not enough. Because even with a crumbling economy, the Iranian leadership is still racing towards a bomb right now."

    Romney went out of his way to suggest that the Obama administration plans to spring some sort of late-November surprise on America's Middle East allies, citing a recent New York Times report that Iran and the White House had agreed to face-to-face negotiations after the election (a report denied by the White House). "Our closest allies, like Israel, will not learn about our plans from the New York Times," Romney wrote. "And I'll be clear with the American people about where I'm heading. I won't be secretly asking the Ayatollahs for more flexibility following some future election."

    He also denied that his new emphasis on negotiations means that he would accept less than a complete halt to Iran's nuclear work: "To be clear, the objective of any strategy will be to get Iran to stop spinning centrifuges, stop enriching uranium, shut down its facilities. Full stop. Existing fissile material will have to be shipped out of the country."
  • Just How Committed Is Obama to Stopping Iran?

    An exchange with Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

    Here is an interesting (to me, at least) exchange (originally published in The New York Jewish Week)  I had with my friend and sparring partner Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, on the subject of President Obama's Iran policy. Yossi is one of those Israelis who is, to my mind, irrationally fearful of Obama, and Yossi wanted to test my sangfroid.

    Dear Jeff,

    Like many Israelis, I don't trust President Obama's resolve on Iran. When he says that all options are on the table, I remain deeply skeptical about this President's willingness to order a military strike if all other options fail.

    More than any journalist I know, you've been at once clear-eyed on the Islamist threat and also a strong advocate of trusting Obama on Iran. So, as someone who takes the Iranian nuclear threat as seriously as we do here, tell me what we Israelis are missing about Obama.
    Yossi


    Dear Yossi,

    I think Obama takes the threat very seriously. I think he takes it just as seriously as Netanyahu takes it. More, maybe. It seems to me sometimes that Netanyahu, if he truly believed his rhetoric, would have acted already against the Iranian bomb threat. I know there are people in Washington who think he's not actually serious about striking Iran, should all else fail. And these are people who six months ago thought he would do it.

    What you and other Israeli skeptics don't get about Obama is this: He is deadly serious about stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It is a core belief of his. He has enunciated on many occasions compelling reasons why he believes it to be unacceptable for Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. He also knows that the reputation of his presidency is riding on this question. If Iran goes nuclear against his wishes, he looks like Jimmy Carter. He doesn't want to go down in history looking like Jimmy Carter.

    He also knows that he has time before having to act, because of America's greater capabilities. He doesn't show Israel much love, it is true. He doesn't show any nation much love. That's not who he is. But if you read the interview I did with him on this subject, you'll see a clear path, a clear set of parameters and a clear intent to keep a bomb away from Iran. The flipside of this, of course, is that I believe Mitt Romney would be less likely to act, especially in 2013, which may be the year of decision. He'd be a new president, one with an inexperienced national security team. And he won't want to begin his presidency by plunging the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. It is so much harder for a Republican to confront Iran than it would be for a Democrat, for so many reasons. Obama's drone war is a good example; he gets away with things George W. Bush couldn't even imagine doing. Such is the nature of politics in America. Here, by the way, is a compendium of Obama's statements on the subject. Identify for me, please, the wiggle room in these statements. I haven't found any.
    Jeff


    Dear Jeff,

    You make an important point about the advantage of a Democratic president over a Republican president in waging war. A similar dynamic has been at work in Israel. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fought two wars - against Hezbollah in 2006 and then against Hamas in 2009 - and yet is still widely considered a dove, while Netanyahu, who has never led a military campaign in either of his two terms in office, is widely regarded as belligerent. Only the Likud, the old adage goes, can make peace, because it can deliver the moderate right for an agreement. By the same measure, perhaps only the Israeli left (or a national unity government) can effectively wage war and for the same reason: It can bring consensus.

    But the question regarding Obama and Iran, of course, is whether this Democratic president is capable - temperamentally, ideologically - of ordering a military strike against Iran. At issue isn't whether Obama wants to stop Iran but whether he has the determination to match his rhetoric.

    Do you believe that the current level of sanctions, however economically painful, are enough to deter Iran? Do you believe the Iranians will agree to a negotiated solution? From reading you carefully over the last few years, I don't think you do. And so, Jeff: If Obama won't bring the sanctions to the point where they can truly stop Iran, then how can we trust him to use military force?

    You write that failure to stop Iran will mean that Obama goes down in history as another Jimmy Carter. In fact he already looks like Jimmy Carter. As you recently wrote (don't you hate it when you get quoted against yourself?), Obama has failed to show resolve in Syria. Bringing down Assad - the Arab regime that is Iran's closest ally - should be one of the administration's top foreign policy goals. In hesitating on Syria, Obama is repeating his failure to support the anti-regime demonstrators in Teheran in 2009.

    To forfeit two historic opportunities to undermine the Iranian regime hardly instills confidence that Obama can be trusted to act decisively against a nuclearizing Iran.

    Obama's mishandling of Egypt likewise reveals poor judgment in dealing with extremist threats. One can argue whether he jettisoned his former ally, Mubarak, too abruptly. One can argue too whether he could have helped slow the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    What seems to me inarguable is that he has failed to effectively set limits to the Brotherhood, failed to challenge its growing domestic repression. Instead, he wants to increase foreign aid to Egypt. If this were not an election year, he would have likely met with Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, during the latter's recent visit to the UN. The result of that policy of accomodationism is that it is Morsi who is setting conditions on America for the relationship between Washington and Cairo (as he recently did in a New York Times interview).
    Finally Obama showed misjudgment in repeatedly condemning the ludicrous YouTube anti-Muslim film. By taking out ads on Pakistani TV to condemn the film, the administration encouraged the perception that extremists had a legitimate grievance.

    There's a pattern here of weakness against enemies, of appeasing extremists, of missing opportunities
    .
    All this is hardly surprising to you: You've written as much in recent weeks. "Obama's record in the Middle East," you wrote, "suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty." True, you also wrote the following: "On the most important and urgent issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Obama is an activist president." But can you really fault Israelis for wondering whether, at the moment of truth, Obama will avoid the ultimate missed opportunity?
    It's not only Israelis who don't trust Obama on Iran. Arab leaders, as you well know, are skeptical too. Worst of all, the Iranian regime doesn't believe him. That's why it responds to Obama's sanctions and threats by accelerating its nuclear program.

    You may be right, and I am underestimating this President's resolve on an issue to which he has repeatedly committed himself.

    If so, there's a deeper question here for Israelis: Can we trust anyone, even the most well-intentioned friend, with an issue of existential importance to us? As someone who knows us as well as any American Jew, this Israeli anxiety will come as no surprise to you.

    For many of us the frame of reference is May 1967. At that time, Lyndon Johnson, as good a friend as Israel ever had in the White House, refused to honor President Eisenhower's commitment in 1957 to challenge an Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. Johnson, preoccupied with Vietnam, had good reason for wanting to avoid American involvement in another war. But the fact remains that, at the crucial moment, America violated its commitment to Israel.

    Aside perhaps from May 1967, I can't think of a more excruciating time for Israel than now. Obama has repeatedly assured us that he understands our angst, that he supports our right to defend ourselves. And still we stubborn Israelis persist in our skepticism.

    Maybe what I'm asking from you is unfair, Jeff. Because in the end, no amount of reassurance of Obama's resolve can convince us that the Johnson precedent won't return, and that we won't find ourselves alone again against existential threat.
    Yossi


    Dear Yossi,

    There are two questions here (well, actually there are about 30) but let me grapple with the two most important ones: The first is this: Is President Obama actually prepared to use military force to stop Iran? The second question is, Is Romney prepared to use military force to stop Iran?

    When I argue for the idea that Obama may eventually resort to force to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, I'm not judging him against some sort of impossible standard of interventionist muscularity. I'm judging him against the only other man who could be elected president next month. You're familiar with my argument that Romney is less likely (particularly early in his term) than Obama to use force, so I won't rehearse it here.

    I would add this, however, and I haven't mentioned this before: If Romney wins, the anti-war movement will become extraordinarily energized in the U.S. Democrats who might have felt compelled to back Obama, or at least acquiesce to military action against Iran, will be on the barricades protesting the possibility of such a strike if it is Romney's doing. Fierce opposition certainly won't strengthen Romney's hand to act, and the consequences of the opposition that is sure to materialize could have profoundly negative effects on Israel's reputation in America. Israel is already in danger of becoming a partisan issue; the long-term consequences of this could be devastating. If Romney wins, and if Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power in Israel, I can almost guarantee you that you will see a melting away of whatever Democratic support there is for tough action against Iran, and a melting away of whatever liberal support there still remains for a strong America-Israel relationship. American support is a pillar of Israeli national security policy. Israel cannot thrive - and maybe it can't survive - in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. But it will also have difficulty surviving without American support, and I'm telling you, medium- to long-term, Israel could be in trouble in the U.S.
    .
    To answer some of your other questions, do I believe sanctions will work to bring Iran to a compromise? No, probably not. Do I believe that sanctions could work to destabilize, and possible bring an end to, the regime? Possibly yes. I'm not sure why you believe Obama is weak on sanctions; he's certainly stronger than his Republican predecessor was. And I think Netanyahu's people are being sincere when they say that there is at least the small possibility that sanctions will work.

    On a related subject, I'm not sure why you conflate Obama's passivity on Syria with his tough actions, and tough words, on Iran. He was never going to go into the regime-change business. He didn't get elected to go into the regime business. He ran for office in order to get America out of the regime-change business. He is, in this sense, a foreign policy realist. But he did run for office on the promise of stopping nuclear proliferation. He is deeply and sincerely committed, I believe, to a rather too grand vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the unreality of the ultimate goal serves the needs of those who want Iran permanently denuclearized. He knows, I assume, that he can't achieve global Nuclear Zero. But he also knows that stopping a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is within his power. I always try to explain to Israelis that Obama isn't committed to this issue merely because he promised Jewish voters that he would not allow Israel to be endangered. Non-proliferation is a cornerstone of his worldview, and Iran represents the single-biggest challenge to that worldview.

    But maybe you're right - maybe this is going to be Johnson redux. But you have to consider something else: By extracting himself from Iraq, by drawing down in Afghanistan, by staying out of the Syrian civil war, maybe what Obama is doing is preparing for the day when he has to go to the American people and say that he is taking military action against Iran. He's clearing the decks, in other words. From the Israeli standpoint, maybe you should be glad that he's taking a pause in the Middle East intervention business. This way, when the Iran issue reaches a boiling point, he won't be in Johnson's position - overextended, and unpopular, and therefore not willing to, among other things, come to Israel's aid.
    Jeff


    Dear Jeff,

    That's a crucial insight you raise about the anti-war movement and a President Romney. A reenergized anti-war movement could dangerously erode the already-shaky nature of bipartisan support for Israel, which is the only long-term guarantee for maintaining the special relationship. Missiles on Tel Aviv, a multi-front war with Hezbollah, Hamas, what's left of Syria and of course Iran, the unleashing of global terror against Jewish communities, rising oil prices and eonomic dislocation - Israelis take a deep breath and prepare themselves for those disasters. Risking our relationship with blue-state America is almost one blow too many.

    And yet if Israeli skepticism about Obama is right, then I'm ready to take that risk, too. I see a nuclear Iran as a literal apocalyptic threat, and I sense that you do too. The difference between us remains: Can we trust this guy at the moment of truth?

    You sat with the President, looked him in the eye and was convinced of his determination. In your place I may well have reached the same conclusion.

    But from where I'm sitting, it seems to me unthinkable that Obama, for all his commitment to non-proliferation, will order the bombing of Iran. This is after all the man who thought he was atoning for the abuse of American power by abandoning anti-regime demonstrators in Tehran in 2009.

    As for Obama and sanctions: Yes, he's imposed far stronger measures than his predecessor, but that is, unfortunately, a meaningless comparison. Four years ago, Obama's sanctions would have been significant. Now, the only question that matters is whether those sanctions are enough to stop Tehran. I don't believe they are.

    I fear that Obama still believes he's dealing with essentially rational people in the Iranian regime. And now there are reports of secret negotiations between Tehran and Washington. In the end my deepest fear is that Obama will be outmaneuvered by the Iranians, that his longing for a diplomatic solution will be played by the Iranian regime to reach the point of breakout.
    But Jeff: If Obama is reelected, all I can do is pray for that moment when you will say to me, I told you so.

    Yossi

  • Revenge of the Cow

    An advertisement against ritual animal sacrifice.

    This story is an advertisement against ritual animal sacrifice:

    A spooked cow killed a Palestinian man who was trying to slaughter the beast on Saturday during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha, a Gaza health official said.

    Muslims around the world slaughter sheep, cows and goats, during the four-day holiday that began Friday, giving away much of the meat to the poor. The Muslim holiday commemorates the sacrifice by the Prophet Ibrahim, known to Christians and Jews as Abraham.

    But accidents are common as people frequently buy animals to slaughter themselves instead of paying professional butchers. The festive atmosphere at the site of the slaughtering also tends to make the animals fidgety.

    The 52-year-old man who died was trampled to death, and another three people were seriously injured when the cow ran wild in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, said health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

    In all, he said some 150 people were hospitalized in the Palestinian territory with knife wounds or other injuries caused by animals trying to break away.
  • Israel Contemplates a 2-Party System

    Thanks to today's Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger, it is not inconceivable that the country will see two very large parties battling it out for dominance of its politics.

    News is reaching American shores that Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman are merging their two parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, to form a new broad-based right-wing coalition. This is a reaction, obviously, to so-far fruitless negotiations by various centrists and left-centrists who are considering a merger to present a unified front against Netanyahu. In other words, despite the dispositional fractiousness of Israeli politics, it is not inconceivable that Israel will see two very large parties battling it out for dominance of the Knesset and of Israeli politics, instead of four or five. Now, the two-party system doesn't work so well for us anymore, but its adoption in Israel (or re-adoption; Likud and Labor were once often dominant simultaneously)  would be a good thing; it would force compromise inside factions and it would marginalize ephemeral, single-issue parties.

    Now of course even if two large parties, right and center (I wouldn't go so far as to call the creature that could emerge from negotiations among Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, etc. a left-wing party) are formed, there will still be the Orthodox parties to contend with, but here's my fantasy: A unity government of the mainly secular Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party and a new, mostly secular centrist party that would have the votes to actually make progress on synagogue-state separation issues. Israel can't afford to subsidize the ultra-Orthodox sector anymore, and the Orthodox parties have been granted much too much social and religious power. Secular and non-Orthodox Israelis have to take a stand against creeping fundamentalism (galloping fundamentalism, actually). This may be the best chance, and it may be the last chance. I'm not hopeful, because, why be hopeful? But there's a chance.

  • Fundamentalism Watch

    Another arrest at Judaism's holiest site.

    Read it and weep:

    Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Western Wall on Tuesday night for saying the Sh'ma Israel, Judaism's central proclamation of faith, out loud at Israel's holiest site.

    "I was saying Sh'ma Israel and arrested for it. It's just unbelievable," she said in an interview from her bathtub, where she was soaking limbs bruised from being dragged by handcuffs across the police station floor and legs shackled as if she were a violent criminal. "It was awful."

    Hoffman has been detained by police at the Western Wall six times in the more than two decades that she has led Women of the Wall, a group which conducts prayer services in the women's section at the start of each Jewish month. But on Tuesday night, when she was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and praying out loud, she was treated far more violently by police than ever before.

    "In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.

    "I'm a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh'ma Israel."
  • Did the 'Neocon Puppet Masters' Get Outflanked by Romney?

    This wasn't a debate: It was a moment for Obama to show himself to be all commander-in-chiefy, and for Romney to show himself to be sane, responsible, and uninterested in foreign entanglements.

    I'm on the road, with only intermittent access to reader e-mail, so sorry for the delay, but I've gotten a bunch of questions (and assertions!) from Goldbloggers who are wondering if the neocons were somehow outflanked by Romney in last night's foreign policy debate. After all, Romney spent most of his time agreeing with Obama; he made no effort to suggest that Afghanistan may become a more complicated, and dangerous, place, once American troops leave in 2014; he took no stand in favor of greater intervention in Syria, and so on. One reader wrote, 'It seems like the neocons have lost the battle for the soul of Romney. He said nothing about having a desire for state-building, or about the importance of intervention in humanitarian crises, etc. So what happened?"

    What happened, I think, is that last night's debate wasn't a debate. If we had been watching an actual debate about America's role in the world, I'm sure Romney would have had a lot to say about the shortcomings of Obama's foreign policy. But this wasn't a debate: It was a moment for Obama to show himself to be all commander-in-chiefy, and for Romney to show himself to be sane, responsible and uninterested in foreign entanglements (Iran, of course, being the bipartisan exception). My assumption is that the so-called neoconservatives close to Romney didn't lose an argument about how to approach these issues, my assumption is that these people read polls, too, and know that Americans profess to be tired of the Middle East, and that therefore, it is best, two weeks before the election, not to recommend to their candidate that he push for greater involvement in the Syrian crisis, for example. Neocons, like everyone else in politics, are interested in winning.

    Does this mean that Romney, if he wins the White House, will shed his moderate cloak and embrace the agenda of the interventionists? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think of him as more of a pragmatist than an interventionist. I'm not suggesting that he was hiding anything last night. I'm suggesting only that he accentuated his non-interventionist impulses, and I'm also suggesting that his neoconservative advisers happily went along with this less muscular approach. 

  • The Kishke Debate

    Does President Obama, in his gut, actually care about Israel and would he spend significant political, and even military, capital, to defend it?

    I didn't quite realize it until I received a bunch of e-mails from Jewish Obama partisans, but last night's debate was, in fact, the kishke debate. All of my correspondents made triumphant mention, in one form or another, of the "kishke question," the issue of whether, in his gut, President Obama actually cares about Israel and would spend significant political, and even military, capital, to defend it. One prominent Obama supporter wrote me to say simply this: "Yad Vashem! Sderot!" These two places, both mentioned by Obama, are, of course, touchstones for Jews: The first, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, represents the continued will of the Jewish people to remember the 33 percent of world Jewry that was murdered in the Holocaust, and also represents the determination of the Jewish people to take charge of their own safety and security, through the vehicle of an independent, well-armed, state. The second is the Israeli town bordering Gaza that has suffered from a semi-constant barrage of rockets fired by Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other groups, and that represents Israel's continued vulnerability to terrorism.

    In last night's debate, Obama not only mentioned these two places, he delivered set pieces (set pieces we've heard before, to be sure) on Yad Vashem and Sderot, and on their meaning. If you're in the Obama camp, the explanation for these detours is easy: the President has Israel's best interests at heart, and his opposition to the Iranian nuclear program is motivated in large part by a desire to defend Israel from an existential threat. If you're in the Romney camp, your explanation is also easy: Obama's strategists realized they had to go on the offensive to cover-up the fact that Obama hasn't visited Israel once as President, and that he has a tense and unpleasant relationship with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

    I think both of these lines of thought have elements of truth in them, and I would also say that Romney either felt no need to express understanding for Israel's dilemma, or wasn't prepared to express understanding for Israel's dilemma. This is not to say that Romney doesn't have warm feelings for Israel -- quite the opposite --  it is simply to note that Obama out-foxed him on the "I've got Israel's back" question, which is precisely what he had to do to quiet what for him is a distracting and potentially harmful sub-theme of this campaign.

    And speaking of the kishke question, here is an excerpt of an interview I conducted more than four years ago with then-Senator Obama on the question of Israel's security:

    JG: Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don't know you -- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don't feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it.

    BO: I find that really interesting. I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what's been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they're asking themselves moral questions.

    Sometimes I'm attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it's more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don't think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they've interacted with me long enough to know that I've got it in my gut. During the Wright episode, they didn't flinch for a minute, because they know me and trust me, and they've seen me operate in difficult political situations.

    The other irony in this whole process is that in my early political life in Chicago, one of the raps against me in the black community is that I was too close to the Jews. When I ran against Bobby Rush [for Congress], the perception was that I was Hyde Park, I'm University of Chicago, I've got all these Jewish friends. When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I've been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it's curious.

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