This Week’s 5 Most Important Questions

— by Steve Sheffey

  • Does Israel spy on the US?
  • Will the US prevent a nuclear-armed Iran?
  • Is J Street pro-Israel?
  • Does Marco Rubio understand global warming science?
  • Is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign working?

Read the answers after the jump.
I strongly recommend that you read this fascinating exchange between former US ambassador to Israel Michael Oren and Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf. It’s somewhat long, but it eloquently addresses many of the questions and concerns that trouble thoughtful friends of Israel.

Chuck Hagel defended Israel against spying allegations.

In response to a Newsweek report quoting unnamed US officials accusing Israel of espionage, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that “I’m not aware of any facts that would substantiate the report.” Hagel, on a three-day trip to Israel, also affirmed the strong bond between the US and Israel and noted that US aid to Israel is at record levels.

We will prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Many critics of the interim agreement with Iran refuse to acknowledge that its purpose is not to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Its purpose is to delay progress on Iran’s program so that we can negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program without Iran using the time during negotiations to make significant progress.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on May 12 that (emphasis mine):

Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. As President Obama said in Jerusalem, “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” As the United States and our P5+1 partners engage in negotiations with Iran on a long-term, comprehensive agreement that resolves the world’s longstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, we all have a responsibility to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. But America won’t be satisfied by mere words. We will only be satisfied by verifiable action from Iran. Put simply: if we are not, there will be no deal. And, as these negotiations progress, we continue to consult closely with Israel every step of the way.

The J Street Challenge.

My regular readers know that I’m a strong supporter of AIPAC, and I explained why in my report on AIPAC and J Street. But the disagreements we have with J Street do not negate the fact that J Street is a pro-Israel organization. If you’re really concerned about J Street and the fanciful charges that have been leveled against it, you owe it to yourself to read Setting the Record Straight, by J Street’s founder and Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami.

Barney Frank made a good point last week:

I have long noted an interesting phenomenon in the opinion of some American Jews that criticism of particular Israeli government policies from a more liberal position are a betrayal, while even harsher attacks on efforts by Israeli governments to pursue peace talks are entirely legitimate.


John Oliver and Bill Nye show the world how to debate with climate change deniers.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) denied global warming science.

Rubio proved that he is both ignorant of science and eminently qualified to be a GOP candidate for President by denying the reality that global warming is caused by human activity. Jeffrey Kluger explains why Rubio is wrong on climate change. This is the same Marco Rubio who, when asked the age of the earth, said “I’m not a scientist, man.” No kidding.

Kluger’s article is a great article to send to anyone who still doesn’t get it on climate change, but Carl Hiaassen’s approach works too.

#BringBackOurGirls.

I wonder if those mocking #BringBackOurGirls would have mocked the “Save Soviet Jewry” posters many synagogues put on their lawns not too long ago. The point of the “Save Soviet Jewry” signs was not that the signs themselves would free Soviet Jews, but that by constantly calling attention to their plight, we would make action more likely and more likely to succeed.

Hashtags are today’s signs. No one thinks that hashtags on Twitter are a substitute for action, but they are helping focus the world’s attention on the plight of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Zach Beauchamp explains why #BringBackOurGirls is making a difference for Nigeria.

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ASA Israel Boycott Widely Condemned


Related Article: Is Your Alma Mater Complicit in ASA’s Israel Boycott? Includes universities’ contact information so that you can make your views known.

— by Steve Sheffey

The American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been condemned by organizations, politicians and public figures from all across the political spectrum.

The American Association of University Professors said in an official letter that it opposes academic boycotts, including the ASA boycott, as violations of academic freedom.

The Anti-Defamation League wrote in a press release, “This shameful, morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest attack on academic freedom by the [ASA] should be soundly condemned by all who are committed to the ideal that open exchange of ideas is the most effective way to achieve change.”

Targeting Israeli institutions solely because they are in Israel — the only democratic country in the Middle East where scholarship and debate are encouraged and flourish — is based on a myopic and fundamentally distorted perspective of Israel and the conflict and is manifestly unjust.

Comments from Ambassador Oren, Rep. Schneider, JStreet, Peter Beinart and Jeff Goldberg follow the jump.
The former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, wrote in his official Facebook page that the boycott “singles out the world’s only Jewish state, the Middle East’s only democracy, undermines academic freedom, and defies Abu Mazen’s opposition to such boycotts.”

More needs to be said about fighting back. The United States has long imposed strict penalties on companies complying with the Arab boycott of Israel. Similar measures should be enacted denying state and Federal funding for any activities associated with the promoters of this racist anti-democratic measure.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) tweeted that the “decision by ASA to boycott Israeli academic institutions is misdirected and wrong.”

In its official blog, JStreet wrote that it “strongly opposes the American Studies Association’s decision today to boycott Israeli colleges and universities.”

Unilaterally placing blame on one party, as the ASA boycott does, is an overly simplistic and unhelpful approach to an incredibly complicated and dynamic political situation. And it is one that is not befitting of an academic community.

The Daily Beast columnist, Peter Beinart, wrote that the boycott is “dead wrong,” because it denies “the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.”

The Bloomberg columnist, Jeff Goldberg, wrote, “Is it a coincidence that these academics are singling out the world’s only Jewish-majority country for boycott? Only to those who know nothing of the history of anti-Semitic scapegoating.”

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Jewish Organizations Welcome Renewal of Peace Talks


Secretary of State John Kerry

In response to Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement, that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have the basis to resume peace talks, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We welcome this apparent progress toward peace, and commend Secretary of State Kerry for his leadership and effort and pledge our support for such efforts as they move forward. We pray that this is the beginning of a process that will lead to a lasting agreement that will bring true peace and stability for a region that has known conflict for thousands of years. We call on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table with a true willingness to work for peace and we pray that the vision of the prophets will soon be fulfilled.

JCPA and JStreet comments after the jump.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold said:

This is an opportunity that for the past two years has been extremely elusive. It grows out of the recognition that peace and security, prosperity and independence, cannot be reached by any path other than direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. We have no illusions about the difficulties ahead. The issues that must be resolved are profound. But the status quo is unacceptable. Israel’s future as a secure and democratic nation state of the Jewish people cannot be fully preserved without establishment of a stable, viable, and independent State of Palestine. We encourage both sides to show the courage, flexibility and persistence necessary for these talks to be successful.

JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow added:

This is a great achievement for Secretary of State Kerry who invested so much time and diplomatic effort in finally bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Last week, we and the American Task Force for Palestine joined together in Washington, D.C. to meet with members of the administration and leaders in Congress to express our support for this effort and for a negotiated peace. Two states for two peoples cannot be achieved without a strong U.S. leadership, and we are thankful to Secretary Kerry and President Obama for their leadership. But the hard work is just beginning. As we move forward, we urge all who want peace to support these negotiations and to encourage reconciliation, not division.

JStreet President Jeremy Ben-Ami said:

Secretary Kerry deserves the recognition of the entire world for his determination and creativity in achieving this breakthrough. We are confident he will remain fully engaged as the parties get down to negotiating. We thank President Obama for making this issue a top foreign policy priority of his second term.

We call on Congress and American Jews to get fully behind this peace effort to give the parties the support they need to make the tough decisions necessary to resolve their conflict.

Achieving a two-state solution is a vital U.S. national security interest and would inject much-needed stability into an increasingly unstable region. It would deal a setback to extremists and terrorists around the world who have exploited this conflict to mobilize support for their violent methods.

Such an agreement is also the only way to secure Israel’s future as both a democracy and a Jewish homeland and would provide Palestinians with a vehicle in which to fulfill their self-determination and national aspirations.

We know that difficult days lie ahead, but we are convinced that with persistence, creative mediation and international support, a deal is within reach. Vocal minorities on both sides can be expected to oppose the negotiations going forward, but must not be allowed to frustrate the desire of clear majorities of Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution to end this conflict.

Special AIPAC Conference Report

Highlight video

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

— by Steve Sheffey

The 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference was a huge success, with over 13,000 delegates, 339 members of the Senate and House, and lobbying appointments with every member of the Senate and House.

Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Conference by live video, expressing his appreciation for President Obama’s work and emphasizing three priorities: Iran, Syria, and peace with the Palestinians.

Vice President Joe Biden was amazing. His outline of the Obama administration’s Middle East foreign policy was frequently interrupted by applause and standing ovations.  

We lobbied for the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, the United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, Senate Resolution 65, which reiterates our commitment to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, and security assistance for Israel.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is off to a strong start. His first meeting as Secretary of Defense with a foreign counterpart was with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak wished Hagel well in his Policy Conference speech. When Hagel met with Barak on Tuesday, Hagel reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security and to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Hagel also noted his outstanding working relationship dating back to Minister Barak’s days as prime minister.

Barak said at the Policy Conference that a two-state solution with the Palestinians is the only long-term solution to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Much more after the jump.
Over 13,000 people attended the AIPAC Policy Conference last week in a powerful display of bipartisan support for a strong US-Israel relationship. Some of us left on Monday to avoid being stranded by the snowstorm in Chicago on Tuesday. Over 1700 flights were canceled at O’Hare on Tuesday, mainly based on fear of what the storm might be rather than what the storm turned out to be. The flight I would have been on was not canceled. I could have stayed. Good job National Weather Service!

Please read my article on AIPAC and J Street if you need a refresher on what AIPAC is and isn’t. I’m not going to repeat it here.

This year marked the first time in AIPAC Policy Conference history that AIPAC members scheduled meetings with every lawmaker in Congress for the Tuesday lobbying meetings.  Nearly half of Congress has turned over in the past four years, so pro-Israel activism more important than ever.

The Policy Conference itself was attended by 65 Senators, 274 members of the House, 33 representatives of the Obama administration, 77 Israeli officials, representatives from more than 65 countries, and over 13,000 delegates, including more than 700 from the Chicago area.

Chemi Shalev wrote that

Regardless of one’s political convictions – whether you believe Israel is warmonger or peace seeker, aggressor or defender, victim or victimizer, hero or villain, sinner or saint – the Annual AIPAC Policy Conference is a sight to be seen, a pageant to behold, a formidable spectacle that cannot be ignored.

It’s hard to decide which is more impressive: the sheer scale of the event, the many thousands of participants, the professional management, the impeccable execution, the creative pyrotechnics, the mind-boggling percentage of American lawmakers and officials who grace the event with their presence or their unequivocal, across the board, no ifs or buts support for the Israeli government and its policies.

You can save $200 off the registration fee for the March 2-4, 2014 Policy Conference by clicking here and signing up before March 18.

Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Conference by live video from Israel. Bibi explained that while putting together a coalition government is consuming his time now,

The first thing that my new government will have the privilege of doing is to warmly welcome President Obama to Israel. I look forward to the President’s visit. It will give me an opportunity, along with the people of Israel, to express our appreciation for what he has done for Israel.

Netanyahu said his discussions with President Obama would focus on Iran, Syria, and the need to find a responsible way to advance the peace with the Palestinians.

Vice President Joe Biden rocked the house. His speech was amazing and was frequently interrupted by standing ovations. I’ll give you just a taste, but if you have time, you should read it or watch it. It’s worth watching rather than reading because Biden’s delivery is so effective. Said Biden:

The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel and the United States to reassess old and settled relationships. Iran — Iran’s dangerous nuclear weapons program and its continued support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas not only endanger Israel but endanger the world. Attempts — (applause) — attempts of much of the world to isolate and delegitimize the state of Israel are increasingly common and taken as the norm in other parts of the world.

All these — all these pressures are similar but different. And they’ve put enormous pressure on the state of Israel. We understand that. And we especially understand that if we make a mistake, it’s not a threat to our existence, but if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence. (Applause.)

And that’s why — that’s why from the moment the president took office, he has acted swiftly and decisively to make clear to the whole world and to Israel that even as circumstances have changed, one thing has not: our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel. That has not changed. (Cheers, applause.) That will not change as long as I and he are president and vice president of the United States.

It’s in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral imperative. All of you — I thank you for continuing to remind the nation and the world of that commitment.

Lobbying is a key component of the AIPAC Policy Conference. This year, we lobbied for The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, The United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, S. Res. 65, and security assistance for Israel. You can read the AIPAC summaries here.

The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 (HR 850) states that United States policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability would embolden its already aggressive foreign policy, increase the risk that Iran would share its nuclear technology and expertise with extremist groups and rogue nations, destabilize global energy markets, and likely lead other governments in the region to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.

HR 850 requires the Secretary of State to determine whether Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps meets the criteria for designation as a foreign terrorist organization. The bill also imposes additional sanctions on Iran. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) is an original co-sponsor.

The United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 (HR 938) designates Israel as a major strategic partner of the United States. It also provides for increased assistance and cooperation with Israel, including the enhancement of the David’s Sling Weapon System, the enhancement of the joint United States-Israel Arrow Weapon System (Arrow 2 and Arrow 3), and the procurement and enhancement of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system.

Senate Resolution 65 contains an excellent history of Iran’s actions and statements on nuclear weapons and recognizes “the close military, intelligence, and security cooperation that President Obama has pursued with Israel.”  The bipartisan Resolution leaves no doubt about our nation’s commitment to stopping Iran, reminding the world that

  • In his State of the Union Address on February 12, 2013, President Obama reiterated, “The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations. And we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
    On March 4, 2012, President Obama stated, ‘Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
  • On October 22, 2012, President Obama said of Iran, “The clock is ticking . . . And we’re going to make sure that if they do not meet the demands of the international community, then we are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
  • On May 19, 2011, President Obama stated, “Every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
  • On September 21, 2011, President Obama stated, “America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring.”
  • On March 4, 2012, President Obama stated, “And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”
  • On October 22, 2012, President Obama stated, “Israel is a true friend. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency . . . I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.”

Anyone who doubts President Obama’s commitment to Israel and to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons hasn’t been paying attention.

The Resolution, which does not have the force of law, “urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence” but also states that “Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.”

We also lobbied for security assistance for Israel. Click here to read more.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is off to a strong start. I’m sure that Chuck Hagel came up at some of the break-out sessions, but the only mention I noticed of Hagel at the plenaries was when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, congratulated Hagel and wished him well. It was obviously an applause line, but some AIPAC delegates didn’t get it and the applause was tepid.

This is what Ehud Barak, who has known Hagel for ten years, said: “[Secretary Hagel] will, no doubt, serve his country with the same pride and honor with which he served, both on the battlefield and in Congress.”

Many of us had concerns about Hagel. But the nomination fight is over. Hagel is our Secretary of Defense. Regardless of whether we were for him or against him, we should all wish him well and judge him on how he does going forward. So when Israel’s Defense Minister (who might even be more pro-Israel than we are) applauds our Secretary of Defense, those of us who place a strong US-Israel relationship above partisan politics should join in that applause.

Thus far, Hagel is proving his critics wrong. His first meeting as Secretary of Defense with a foreign counterpart was with Ehud Barak on Tuesday. Here is the full Department of Defense statement on the meeting. Judge for yourself the state of US-Israel relations in the Hagel era:

Secretary Hagel hosted Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak today at the Pentagon for his first meeting with a foreign counterpart since taking office as secretary of defense.  Secretary Hagel expressed his strong commitment to Israel’s security, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and continued U.S. support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints.

Secretary Hagel and Minister Barak agreed that the United States-Israeli defense relationship has never been stronger than during the Obama administration and that both nations will continue this unprecedented close cooperation.

The leaders discussed the range of security interests shared by the U.S. and Israel, including the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons in their country; the leaders pledged to continue U.S.-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat.

Regarding Iran, Secretary Hagel reiterated that President Obama is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon with all options on the table.  He stated that the United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing.

Secretary Hagel noted the two have had an outstanding working relationship dating back to Minister Barak’s days as prime minister and he thanked Minister Barak for his kind words at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.  Secretary Hagel expressed his desire to visit Israel soon and Minister Barak stated that Israel looks forward to hosting him in the near future.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the Policy Conference that a two-state solution with the Palestinians is the only long-term solution to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Barak said that a two-state solution is essential for Israel, not a favor for the Palestinians. In one of the break-out sessions, David Makovsky said that both sides want a two-state solution, but each doubts the other’s sincerity.  Makovsky thinks that synchronized political messaging can help build trust on both sides. He thinks it’s important for Israel to set clear limits on settlement expansion.

Jeff Goldberg sums up in three paragraphs the essence of the occupation and what it means for Israel:

Remember, the occupation itself was originally justifiable: Jordanian forces fired on Israel from the West Bank, and Israel subsequently took the territory from which it was being assaulted. It was when some Israelis succumbed to messianic temptation and moved to the West Bank, with the help of successive Israeli governments, that the true problem began.

Israel faces only two choices here: It can offer citizenship to the Palestinians whose lives are affected by its decisions, or it can negotiate an end to settlement, especially the far-flung settlements that project deeply into the West Bank, and then work toward the creation of a Palestinian state. Will Jews be allowed to live and pray in that Palestinian state? I certainly hope so; it would be a crime to deny Jews access to their holy sites. Hebron is Judaism’s 2nd-holiest city, Jews lived there for millenia until they were massacred by some of their Arab neighbors (other Arabs played a role in the rescue of the remnant of the Jewish community) and Jews quite obviously have a right to live in all parts of their historic homeland.

That said, the Jewish state cannot maintain a double-standard in these areas, because it is also a crime to deny people full enfranchisement based on their ethnicity. Most Israelis want to maintain their country as a Jewish state, and as a Jewish haven. Jews, because they are an ancient people, and because they have suffered at the hands of Christians and Muslims for centuries, have earned the right to independence. Having finally earned the privilege of Jewish autonomy, Israelis do not want to become citizens of the world’s 23rd Arab-majority state. But eventually, if the Palestinians of the West Bank aren’t freed from Israeli domination, that is what they will become.

Have you seen this amazing speech by Ruth Calderon? At a break-out session on Israel’s recent election, Dr. Jonathan Rynhold recommended that we watch this video of new Knesset member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid). A secular woman gives a Talmud lesson on pluralism and religious freedom in the Knesset during which the Speaker of the Knesset (from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party) not only participates, but says “amen” at the end. Truly remarkable.

As for the Israeli elections, the panel (which also included David Horovitz from the Times of Israel) agreed that Netanyahu would likely form a coalition government prior to President Obama’s scheduled visit. Rynhold said that the difference between Israeli and American democracy is that the American system was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots, whereas the Israeli system was designed by idiots and can only be understood by geniuses.

Both panelists agreed that the peace process was not much of an issue in the election–not because Israelis don’t think it’s important, but because there is a national consensus in favor of a two-state solution and a national despair of reaching a two-state solution with current Palestinian leadership.

And finally, a personal story. For some reason, there was no Republican Jewish Coalition presence at the Policy Conference, but there was a strong National Jewish Democratic Coalition presence. On Sunday morning, the NJDC’s Aaron Keyak and David Streeter gave me a Proud Pro-Israel Dem button to wear and a few dozen more to give to anyone who wanted one.

Later that afternoon, as I was walking down a crowded stairway, I tripped and fell down the stairs. My bag dropped and the buttons flew all over the stairs. Chevy Chase would have been proud of the way I took the fall, although if Aaron Stein hadn’t grabbed my arm I might have broken my neck. Within seconds, two security guards rushed to my side and everyone was looking at me. After reassuring the guards that I was okay, while still sitting on the stairs, I somehow had the presence of mind to loudly say “Now that I’ve got your attention, who wants a button?” Many people took buttons. It was pretty cool.