Election Contagion

Here’s what worries me in the wake of the recent Israeli elections and in anticipation of the U.S. 2020 Presidential election:
In a sentence, I worry that the American voter may arrive at the same sort of transactional decision that a plurality of Israeli voters apparently did, namely hold their collective noses and vote for Donald Trump for a second term.
Break it down with me: after 10 years of Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister, Israeli voters have no illusions about Bibi.
They know he is a narcissistic power addict who will do anything to keep himself in office. If he survives through July, he’ll become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s 71-year history after the founding father, David Ben Gurion.
They also know that if the pending prosecutorial charges against him are true, he is personally corrupt. They know he has fallen in love with the good life of fancy cigars and pink champagne and has apparently enriched himself with investments in some of Israel’s arms suppliers.
And yet they voted for him in sufficient numbers to give him the opportunity to form what will be the most hard-right, religiously-conservative government in their nation’s history.
The vote was partly a referendum on Bibi, but it was more than that. It was a decision that, despite his many personal and political failings, Netanyahu has steered the country to a strong economy, relative security and a standoff with the Palestinians. He also has a close and profitable relationship with President Trump and his family, a cozy cooperation that has already borne fruit with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and overt support for Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Can U.S. support for Israeli annexation of key West Bank settlements be far behind? Is it already baked into the “deal of the century,” the U.S. peace proposal that is expected to be unveiled soon?
The bottom line, the Israeli voters seemed to be saying, is all that really counts.
Will the U.S. voter come to a similar conclusion in 2020?
If the U.S. economy is still strong, if unemployment is still low, if wages are up measurably, if Trump’s trade wars have not destroyed American agriculture, if U.S. troops are not committed to any new wars, will the American voter give the President another turn around the dance floor?
If no broadly-appealing Democrat emerges from the primary pack, will the voters settle for the devil-you-know?
After two-plus years in office, and especially after the damming documentation in the Mueller report of President Trump’s lies, the American voters can have no more illusions about their president’s character than the Israelis do about Bibi. Will they hold their collective noses as significant numbers of Israelis did?
The answer depends largely on the Democrats. It depends on how they frame the debates and whether the candidate who emerges from the primaries can appeal to the centrist voters in the industrial Midwest who defected to Trump in 2016.
Stay tuned.

Bibi and The Donald

It is hard, these days, to miss the striking similarities between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and President Donald “The Donald” Trump.
It goes well beyond their nicknames.
Both of these embattled leaders are facing multiple investigations, both have launched relentless assaults on the media, both use the megaphones of their offices to push a nationalist, autocratic approach to power and both, of course, are running for re-election, Bibi in April and The Donald, presumably, in 2020.
Bibi is currently under the Israeli state prosecutor’s microscope; The Donald is a featured player in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Recent reports from Israel suggest that Bibi will be indicted for bribery in a month or so, before his April 9 re-election bid to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history; The Donald, aka “Individual 1,” has already been depicted as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Michael Cohen case and could well be the subject of a sealed indictment from the Southern District of New York, now universally described on cable news as SDNY.
Both men have dismissed the investigations as groundless witch hunts mounted by their respective “deep states.”
And both leaders are curiously close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bibi has traveled repeatedly to Moscow to confer with Putin on the growing Iranian presence in Syria; The Donald has met the Russian leader five times and had nothing but kind words for him since his 2016 campaign. One major difference: Bibi has not, as far as is known, been negotiating behind the scenes to build a Netanyahu Tower in Moscow.
When it comes to attacking the media, both men have launched full-scale campaigns. Bibi has complained early and often about his treatment in the feisty Israeli press and broadcast networks. His Likud Party recently unveiled a splashy election billboard featuring huge pictures of four leading Israeli journalists with the slogan: “They won’t Decide.”
The Donald, of course, has repeatedly denounced the U.S. media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” Over the weekend, the President celebrated the staff cuts at numerous news operations. One minor difference: Bibi is not known to spend hours each day watching cable news and tweeting his reactions.
The two men have been and remain politically close: Bibi has applauded The Donald at every opportunity, Trump has taken page after page from the Israeli playbook by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, an empty, but symbolic move that Bibi has sought for years. If there is anything else Bibi wants from The Donald, apparently he just has to ask.
Both men are adept at manufacturing crises, real and imagined, to distract attention from other problems. The Donald has conjured caravans of drug dealers and criminals assaulting the southern border in order to build support for his Wall; Bibi has repeatedly and dramatically pointed to Iran as an existential threat to Israel, launched multiple attacks on Hamas forces in Gaza, confronted Hezbollah along the Lebanese border and mounted hundreds of air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Many of these threats to Israel are real; confronting them aggressively tends to divert the public’s attention from other, politically awkward headlines.
Finally, both men are gifted political operators: Bibi became Israel’s youngest prime minister when he served in the late 1990’s, returned to office in 2009 and has beaten back repeated challenges over the last decade; Trump pulled off an amazing political upset in 2016 and has dominated the headlines and airwaves ever since.
At this point, the public opinion polls in Israel favor Bibi’s re-election, albeit by a narrow margin; Trump’s prospects are less promising. The President’s standing in the polls descended to new lows after the abortive government shutdown. But it is too early to count him out for a second term. No appealing Democratic candidate has emerged from the growing crowd of declared and undeclared, and the 2020 election is a political lifetime away.

A Father, A Son and an Assassination – 50 years later

Fifty years ago this week, it fell to me to tell Sirhan B. Sirhan Sr. that his son had been identified as the assassin who had killed Robert F. Kennedy the day before in Los Angeles. It was a bizarre encounter in which, by meeting the father, I learned a bit about the troubled life and tortured mind of the son.
It was June 6, 1968, the day Kennedy passed away after lingering for hours after the shooting. I was not in Los Angeles. I was thousands of miles away in Israel, where I was a correspondent for The New York Times. I was stunned by the news about Kennedy, whom I had known and covered when he ran for the Senate in New York.
I was attending a cocktail reception at the home of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel that afternoon when Ambassador Walworth Barbour took me into his study, closed the door and told me that he had just learned that the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan Jr., had been born and raised in Jerusalem and that his father still lived in a West Bank village just outside Ramallah.
I thanked the ambassador, left the reception and raced to Jerusalem. With a translator and the Israeli military escort that was required to travel in the West Bank after dark in those post-war days, I arrived at the Sirhan house about 10 p.m. and rapped loudly on the door. After a minute, a light came on and Sirhan Sr. appeared, pulling a pair of pants over his pajamas.
I identified myself and though I am sure he was confused about being woken up this way, he invited me in and insisted, in the tradition of Arab hospitality, on making coffee. Sitting at his kitchen table, I asked Sirhan if he had heard the news about Kennedy. He said he had and thought it terrible. I asked if he had heard the name of the assassin. No, he said, he had gone to bed before that news.
Taking a deep breath, I asked Sirhan if he had sons. Yes, he said proudly, five. I pushed my notebook across the table and asked him to write the names of his sons in order of their birth. He did, including the fourth of the five, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Jr. I tapped my finger on that name and told him that was the name of the man who had been identified as the assassin.
Sirhan Sr. was stunned. He gave me a hard, disbelieving look and shook his head no. But he could see I was serious. Suddenly, he started to rant and cry, first about how much he admired the Kennedy family, then about how his fourth son couldn’t possibly have been the shooter.
“He was the best of the boys,” he said frantically, sobbing now. “He was the smartest, with the best grades. I was proudest of him.”
Then the father’s face darkened. “If he did this dirty thing, then he should hang,” he shouted angrily. “Kennedy could have been a great president, he could have finished what his brother started.”
Sirhan went on and on like this non-stop, back and forth, railing now, more and more excited, switching between how wrong it had been for Kennedy to be cut down and how good a boy his fourth son was.
By now it was one a.m. I excused myself and rushed back to Jerusalem to write my story
The next day, I located Sirhan Jr.’s former school, the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran School in the Old City. The headmaster confirmed that the boy had been a promising student, near the top of his class.
But the headmaster also said the Sirhan home was deeply troubled. The parents had terrible fights, he said. Sirhan Sr. had lost his job after the 1948 war, blamed it on the Israelis, became emotionally unstable and beat his wife and children repeatedly. The family finally split up and the mother, Mary, got financial help from a Christian missionary group to move with the children to the United States in 1957. They settled in California.
From the headmaster’s account, and Sirhan Sr.’s outbursts, it was not hard to imagine the roots of Sirhan Jr.’s bitterness, his anger at Israel and even his fury at the Kennedy family, whom he apparently saw as important supporters of Israel. It was that anger that motivated him to act on June 5, 1968, the first anniversary of the Six Day War.

Six Days of War

Shortly after dawn on the hot, dry morning of June 5, 1967, Israel launched a momentous battle with her Arab neighbors that came to be known as the Six Day War.
In the course of six frantic days, responding to Egypt’s closing of her access to the Red Sea, Israel captured the Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Golan Heights of Syria, redrawing the map and the power structure of the Middle East. The war created a stalemate in Jerusalem and on the West Bank that persists to this day, half a century later. It is the same standoff between Israelis and the Palestinians that confronted President Trump on his recent visit.
I covered the battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank as an incredibly green, inexperienced correspondent for The New York Times. I had arrived in Israel just 10 days before to take up my first foreign assignment and knew … absolutely nothing.
Scrambling after the Israeli tanks in a rented car, I followed the first units inside the ancient walled Old City of Jerusalem on foot as they took control of the broad, open space the Arabs call the Noble sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. Suddenly, the exhausted troops were face to face with the holiest site in Judaism, the western retaining wall of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
It was an extraordinary moment that I described in an article that The Times headlined: “Israelis Weep and Pray Beside Wailing Wall.” In truth, the more observant soldiers prayed, while the more secular slumped in the shade to avoid a broiling sun. But no one, religious or secular, failed to realize that they were living history. It was the first time Jews had control of the Temple Mount in 2,000 years.
The battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank was fierce, but it was largely over in 96 hours. Israel had won the war, but not the peace. A settlement with the Palestinians is still beyond their reach 50 years later.
Israelis and Palestinians alike were stunned by the speed of the war and the outcome. Two peoples who had been separated by the so-called “Green Line” and a narrow no-man’s land were suddenly face-to-face.
Both sides were intensely curious about the other.
As soon as they could, Israelis poured into the walled Old City. Curiosity – and the human instinct for bargains – drove them into the Palestinian shops. The shelves on the Jordanian side were stocked with duty-free electronics and small luxuries unavailable in high-tariff Israel. The bargains flew off the shelves.
As soon as they could, Palestinians explored Israeli West Jerusalem and beyond.
In the process of getting to know each other in the first weeks after the war, Palestinians discovered that Israelis were not, in fact, 10 feet tall; Israelis found that Palestinians were not, in fact, all cut-throats.
It was not all sweetness and light – blood had been spilled. But there was a shared assumption that, because the Israeli victory had been so total, that this time there would be a settlement of some sort, maybe even a peace agreement.
It was not to be.
By the fall of 1967, the leaders of the Arab states met in Khartoum and agreed on their famous three no’s: “No negotiation, no recognition, no peace” with Israel.
At the same time, the first Jewish settlers established a rump settlement in a hotel in Hebron on the West Bank, insisting on their biblical right to the land and vowing not to leave. They were the first settlers, but hardly the last: there are some 400,000 Israelis settlers on the West Bank today and 350,000 more in East Jerusalem. They are determined not to leave.
So, all the elements of a stubborn standoff were in place before the year was out.
They are still in place 50 years later.

40 Years Later: A Look Back at the Yom Kippur War

It should not have come as a surprise to Israel.

Not after Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat threatened war repeatedly, not after Egypt and Syria assembled massive military forces on the frontiers, not after Jordan’s King Hussein flew secretly to Israel to warn Prime Minister Golda Meir that an attack was imminent.

But it did.

And when full-scale war erupted at 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, Israel was rocked back on its heels. In the first three days, Egypt re-crossed the Suez Canal and retook portions of the western Sinai; Syria rolled across the Golan Heights and shelled Israel’s northern settlements.

Israel hurriedly mobilized, fought back, regained lost territory, pushed forward to occupy more Arab land and finally, reluctantly, accepted a ceasefire on October 25.

When the shooting stopped, Israel’s forces stood in place, 25 miles from Damascus, 63 miles from Cairo.

The war came as a surprise because of skillful deception on the Arab side, but mainly because of hubris on the Israeli side.

Israel had grown complacent since its total victory in the Six Day War in 1967, convinced that Egypt would not dare attack without more and greater Soviet help and that Syria would never attack without Egypt.

Unmistakable warning signs were ignored or discounted. As late as the morning of October 6th, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan remained skeptical that Sadat would launch an all-out assault.  Only when a well-placed spy, Ashraf Marwan, the late President Nasser’s son-in-law, told the head of Israeli intelligence that Yom Kippur was the day, was the full mobilization order given. It was just six hours before the battle began.

So, the first and most important lesson of the war is obvious: never dismiss your enemy, never assume that something that was once true will always be true.

The legacy of the 1973 war, which the Arabs call the Ramadan War, is more complex and poignantly relevant 40 years later.  Negotiations after the war returned the Sinai to Egypt and led to the Camp David accords and a peace treaty that is frosty, but still in place.  The armistice along the Golan Heights is largely intact, despite the .current chaos in Syria. Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, which sent only a token force to the front in 1973.

But peace with the Palestinians is as elusive as ever 40 years later.  Trust is as elusive as ever, on both sides.

More than anything, the war hardened attitudes on all sides.

Israelis have grown progressively more skeptical, if not cynical, about ever achieving a lasting peace with their neighbors.  Israeli settlers have become more determined to dig in. The Israeli right challenges the notion of a two-state solution. The Israeli left struggles to hear its own voice. Two generations of Israelis have grown up with the 1973 war as an object lesson that no one but themselves can be trusted with their security.

On the Arab side, the Ramadan War restored a sense of pride. Despite ultimate setbacks on the battlefield, Sadat achieved his principal goal: breaking the deadlock with Israel and forcing negotiations for the return of the Sinai. Syria’s Hafez al Assad emerged from the war battered, but still in power.

Nonetheless, the war convinced many Egyptians of the futility of defeating Israel on the battlefield. The Egyptian officer corps has grown wealthy and powerful since, but they haven’t fought Israel in 40 years and they are not likely to in the next 40.  Their problems are at home, in the Sinai and Tahrir Square.

If the Arabs have largely, if reluctantly, accepted that Israel is here to stay, it was the ultimate outcome of the 1973 war that made that case.

The Palestinians emerged from the war as the recognized authority of any future independent, sovereign Palestinian state. That status was formally enshrined in the 1974 Rabat summit conference that followed the October War, even if a genuine Palestinian state is only marginally closer to reality 40 years later.

There were major international repercussions as well: the newly-established détente between the Soviet Union and United States survived its first major challenge, Europe felt the sting of the first organized Arab oil embargo and the United States emerged as the indispensible negotiator of any future peace agreements in the Middle East.

The 1973 war was a watershed event, and not just for the region.

Forty years is not a long time in the larger history of the Middle East. But it is long enough to pause, look back, and recognize that the October War changed some things, even many things, but not everything.

TERENCE SMITH covered the 1973 October War as the Israel Correspondent for The New York Times.

TWO GOOD COLUMNS

Two of the best columnists writing in America today have written excellent pieces in recent days that caught my eye. The first was by Tom Friedman in the NYT in the wake of Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, the second is Eugene Robinson’s piece in today’s Washington Post on the futility of the war in Afghanistan.

Friedman’s point was that the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is moribund because the respective leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas,  are stuck in the past. Each is recycling tired old demands and preconditions that effectively stall any progress towards a solution. Totally true.  Neither has had an original idea in years and both are playing to their respective constituencies. CYA politics, Mideast-version.

No wonder George Mitchell resigned as Obama’s envoy.  He had the patience to hammer at the Northern Ireland problem for six years until both sides agreed to the Good Friday Accord. But two years of beating his head against the Israeli-Palestinian intransigence was enough.  No surprise.

Eugene Robinson’s column today, “Declare Victory — and Go,” is an eloquent appeal to common sense.  “What on earth are we doing?” in Afghanistan, he asks.  “We have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan risking life and limb, at a cost of $10 billion a month, to pursue ill-defined goals whose achievement” can only barely be imagined.

“We wanted to depose the Taliban regime, and we did,” he writes. “We wanted to install a new government that answers to its constituents at the polls, and we did.  We wanted to smash al-Qaeda’s infrastructure of training camps and havens, and we did. We wanted to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and we did.”

“The threat from Afghanistan is gone,” he concludes, “bring the troops home.”

That is so clearly the right course of action that it is strange that the Obama Administration does not adopt it immediately.

EGYPT AT THE CROSSROADS

EGYPTIAN PATIENCE WEARS THIN

“We are a river country,” an Egyptian friend once told me when I marveled at his country’s patience with corrupt, incompetent and repressive regimes. “We go on and on.”

Perhaps. But that legendary patience with the bumbling but stubborn, 82-year-old President Mubarak seems to be wearing out.  Change is coming to Egypt, either very soon or shortly thereafter. And what happens in Egypt matters, to Egyptians, of course, but also to the U.S., Israel and the entire Arab world.

Diminished as it may be today, Egypt remains the centerpiece of the Arab world. With its population of 80 million, it is not only the largest Arab country. It is historically, culturally and intellectually the heart of the Arab crescent from Morocco to Lebanon. An old saying in the region is that there can be no peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors without Syria, and no war without Egypt. It is still true today. No surprise that President Obama chose Cairo for his first major speech on relations between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world.

But now Obama confronts the ticklish task of encouraging change in Egypt without seeming to abandon the Mubarak government .  Egypt has served as a crucial counterweight to Syria and Iran. It has received tens of billions of dollars worth of U.S. aid over the years and carved out a cold but diplomatically important peace with Israel. As Egypt goes, so go Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The stakes are enormous.