Netanyahu’s Russian realism

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Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.  The senior editor of  The Tower Magazine and TheTower.org, Cohen is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism.”

Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2016 4:15 pm

These are the days that Vladimir Putin has been aching for since the end of the Cold War.

On Dec. 5, 1989, three weeks after the Berlin Wall was torn down, angry crowds stormed the Dresden Headquarters of the Stasi, the brutal secret police of the Soviet puppet regime in East Germany. At the time, KGB officer Putin was based in the office across the street reserved for the representatives of the Soviet security apparatus. When Russia’s future president picked up the phone to demand military protection from the surging masses, he was told that nothing could be done without orders from Moscow—and Moscow, said the person at the other end, “is silent.”

What a contrast that is with the present. The beleaguered KGB agent who personally witnessed the collapse of Communism, and has nursed the wound ever since, is now running Moscow—a world capital that is very far from silent.

In geopolitical terms, Russia trades on fear of its hard power in places like Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But fear is not the only factor; national leaders looking for fresh opportunities in the face of American isolationism and retreat are looking more and more to Putin for support. In that regard, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has met with Putin four times over the last year and with President Barack Obama only once, exemplifies this new trend.

Netanyahu’s most recent visit to Moscow took place earlier this month, when Russia and Israel countries marked 25 years since the resumption of the diplomatic relations severed by the Soviet Union after the 1967 Six-Day War. While there, the Israeli leader announced that his hosts would be returning an Israeli tank captured during the Lebanon War of 1982, which had been on display in a Russian museum. The symbolism here was uncomplicated and largely welcome: Russia, the gesture seemed to say, regrets its past hostility to Israel and will henceforth treat the Jewish State with respect.

But beneath the smiles and outward displays of reconciliation, Israel and Russia have many practical matters to talk about, and that’s exactly what Netanyahu and Putin have been doing. Back in January, the Reuters news agency opined that Putin was “the closest thing to a friend” that Israel has “ever had in Moscow,” citing the Russian leader’s comment during the 2014 Gaza that he supported Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens.

Yet the same article pointed out the potential for tension between Israel and Russia, in particular over the impact that the S-400 surface-to-air missiles that the Russians have stationed in Syria might have on Israeli aerial operations against the Hezbollah terrorist organization. In particular, Israel wants to avoid being thrust into the same position as Turkey was last November, when its air force downed a Russian jet that Ankara claimed had violated its airspace.

By talking to Putin and keeping him onside, Netanyahu believes he can avoid such mini-disasters in the future. The same reasoning applies to Russia’s close relationship with the Iranian regime, which now includes the provision of S-300 missiles to Tehran—a weapons transfer that has left the Israelis understandably nervous.

In return, the Israelis can expect some degree of Russian diplomatic support. Netanyahu speaks for the vast majority of Israelis when he says that the Golan Heights, captured from the Syrians in 1967, should remain a part of Israel. The rest of the world doesn’t agree. If Putin sticks by Israel with this demand, and Netanyahu apparently thinks he will, its case to retain the Golan becomes significantly more powerful if it is endorsed by the same country that is sustaining Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. That’s why Netanyahu’s key strategic concerns with the Syrian war—the status of the Golan and the prospect of spillover led by Hezbollah—are better addressed in Moscow than they are in Washington.

Rather than fretting about the conflicts of interest arising from an alliance with Assad and Iran on the one hand, and a productive friendship with Israel on the other, Putin is positively embracing this novel state of affairs. Everyone needs Russia, he will conclude, and that might even allow him the wiggle room to take unprecedented positions on regional issues—like, for example, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence that even the U.S. supports. That is, after all, how a tsar might have behaved.

Within the framework of power politics, then, it isn’t hard to understand why Israel and Russia are coming closer together. Yet, even though it’s difficult to fault Netanyahu’s realist logic in actively shopping for new friendships and reviving old ones such as that with Turkey, Western supporters of Israel are correct to feel anxious—especially when it comes to Russia, a nasty, violent, and corrupt dictatorship with a nuclear arsenal. Historically, Russia has treated its Jews abominably over the centuries. Even now, its ultra-nationalists remain close to Putin’s side. If you are going to bet on which country is more likely to be ruled by an anti-Semite in the next 50 years, Russia still looks a far surer prospect than does the U.S.

But Israel has more pressing matters to deal with, which is why there is little patience for hypothetical discussions about the future of Russian anti-Semitism. For that reason, there is little purpose in demanding that Netanyahu stop doing what any other leader in his position, inside or outside Israel, would also do.

Ultimately, if we are to prevent the “Russification” of Israel and, indeed, our other allies—by which I mean a general disdain for classically liberal values, mute acceptance of Russian aggression toward its neighbors, and a resigned attitude to the dilution of American global power—then the solution lies in Washington. Absent that political will, and as much as it might break our hearts, the Putin-Netanyahu bromance will continue to flower.

Time to Form an American Jewish Emergency Committee Against Donald Trump A mobilization would counter the shameful acquiescence to Trump in some corners of the American Jewish establishment.

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Peter Beinart  HARATZ Jun 22, 2016
In dangerous times, American Jews have a tradition of forming “Emergency Committees.” In 1939, fearing that World War II would imperil the activities of the London and Jerusalem-based World Zionist Organization, representatives of America’s major Zionist groups formed the Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs. Later renamed the American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs and then the American Zionist Emergency Council, it operated until the establishment of the State of Israel. Meanwhile, in 1943, Ben Hecht and Peter Bergson created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews in Europe to pressure Franklin Roosevelt’s government to do more to rescue Jews engulfed by the Holocaust. In 2010, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and some like-minded conservatives created the Emergency Committee for Israel to support Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish agenda. 
But more than a year since Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, and several months since he became the presumptive Republican nominee, there is still no American Jewish Emergency Committee against Fascism (or bigotry, or whatever name you choose to describe Donald Trump’s attacks on American Muslims, Mexican immigrants, an independent judiciary and a free press).
I hadn’t thought about this absence until last Shabbat, when an idealistic young Orthodox rabbi named Joshua Frankel came up to me during Kiddush and proposed creating one. His vision is to create a network of rabbis and lay leaders across the country so that wherever Trump speaks, there is always someone to protest, in Judaism’s name.

Of course, some American Jewish groups have already criticized Trump. The Forward’s Nathan Guttman reports that between last December and this May, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Trump’s statements at least five times. The American Jewish Committee called his proposed registry of American Muslims a “horror movie that we Jews are quite familiar with.” The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism organized a walkout of Trump’s speech at AIPAC. The Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc led anti-Trump protests just this week. And earlier this month, four prominent rabbis—one Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform and one Reconstructionist—jointly declared that “Men and women of faith should indeed form a coalition to denounce the racism and bigotry that Trump spews forth and inspires.”
These protests are laudable. But they’ve been episodic. Frankel’s idea is to create something continuous, a protest that does not end until Trump’s presidential bid does. By challenging Trump wherever he goes, rabbis could use his campaign to rouse their own communities against bigotry. After protesting a Trump rally, some might take their congregants to a solidarity event at a local mosque. Others might help immigrants register to vote. The goal would be a rolling mobilization in which thousands or tens of thousands of American Jews join the struggle to defeat the most openly bigoted and authoritarian major party nominee in modern American history.
Such a mobilization would counter the shameful acquiescence to Trump in some corners of the American Jewish establishment. It would counter AIPAC’s decision to invite Trump to speak, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ failure to issue a single press release condemning him and Sheldon Adelson’s pledge to spend as much as $100 million helping him get elected.

It would show that American Jews take seriously the Torah’s 36 injunctions to remember the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And it would put Jews on the right side during a moral crucible that Americans will remember for decades. Mexicans and Muslims will not always be the reviled outsiders they are in America today. One day, the children and grandchildren of the people Trump is demonizing will be highly integrated and politically influential and they will remember who defended their communities when they were under siege.
In defending Mexicans and Muslims, American Jews will also be defending ourselves. Trump is a bigotry entrepreneur. He looks for racial, ethnic and religious resentments that are being underserved by the political class. Today, Jews are not a primary target of those resentments. Nonetheless, Trump’s supporters have generated more public Jew-hatred than any campaign in decades. If you loathe “hyphenated Americans” and yearn to restore the hierarchies of 1950s America, chances are Jews may bother you too.
In the mid-twentieth century, American Jews participated in the civil rights movement in astonishing ways. The American Jewish Committee funded the research into the effects of segregation by African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark that helped sway the Supreme Court in Brown versus Board of Education. In the 1940s, notes J.J. Goldberg in his book, Jewish Power, the American Jewish Congress employed seven lawyers working to fighting segregation, more than either the Justice Department or the NAACP.
The reason was enlightened self-interest. American Jews knew that, as a conspicuous minority with a history of persecution, they would benefit immensely if America became a more equal, tolerant society. Conversely, they knew that if African Americans failed in their struggle for equal citizenship, Jews might also fail in theirs.
The same is true today. An election like this comes along once or twice a lifetime. Let the Trump campaign be an opportunity for American Jews to show our children the kind of people we still are.

Mexico looks to the Jewish playbook to counter threat of Donald Trump

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Now Mexican lobbyists, diplomats, business leaders and advocacy groups are organizing a strategy to fight back against the Trump menace. But in doing so, they’re learning that their country needs to proactively take control of its own narrative, rather than just respond to Trump’s insults and provocations.

This week Mexico took a big first step towards creating a united front by meeting with leaders of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a powerful U.S.-based advocacy organization that works to advance Jewish causes around the world. The AJC, which this year turned 110 years old, recently hosted a series of advocacy training sessions with Mexico’s entire diplomatic corps in the U.S. and several top Mexican-American leaders.

Mexico, like Israel, feels like a country under attack. Donald Trump has built a solid base of support by railing against Mexico and stirring xenophobic and nativist sentiments in the United States. At first Mexico tried to ignore him, but that’s become impossible. So now Mexico is turning to the Jewish advocacy group for a strategy about how to bulletproof Mexico the same way they have helped bulletproof Israel, a country that’s considered America’s unconditional ally.

“We don’t make Stalin or Hitler comparisons lightly, but some of the expressions of populism we have witnessed are reminiscent of those times,” AJC Latin America outreach director Dina Siegel, who was born in Mexico City, told me.

But it’s not just about Trump. The Jewish advocacy group is urging Mexico to think beyond The Donald and focus on coalition building. In the U.S., Israel is not a Jewish issue, but a national interest issue,” Siegel explained. “In the same way, Mexico needs to stop being a Mexican or a Latino-only issue and become an American issue.”

Jonathan Peled, Israel’s Ambassador to Mexico, says Mexico’s plan shouldn’t be “launching an anti-Trump campaign,” rather shifting the narrative about Mexico by highlighting the facts and everything the country does well.

“Israel, like Mexico, has an image problem,” Peled told a roomful of 49 Mexican consuls. He said many people associate Israel with war and fear, but the Israeli government has been actively countering that perception with a country branding campaign that highlights the Jewish state as a tolerant and diverse country with a vibrant nightlife and an emerging tech startup scene. Some criticize the effort as a form of Hasbara (a broad term covering Israel’s PR advocacy efforts) as glossing over or ignoring problems, but others say it’s working.

Peled said the strategy is to find ways to make Israel seem “relevant to an American audience and open a dialogue with young people,” which means being active on social media. “Don’t sell the message, make people buy it,” he told the Mexicans.

The AJC stressed that Mexicans shouldn’t be alone in advocating for the Mexican cause. They need to align themselves with other groups who can speak on their behalf. Mexican-American advocacy also needs to be “professionalized” by tapping media-savvy spokesmen and PR experts rather than just depending on volunteers and community leaders.

And Mexico needs to increasingly adopt the mindset evoked by the Hebrew phrase “ein breira” or “no choice.” Mexico cannot afford to lose.


THE MEXICAN STRATEGY

Mexico’s new standard bearer is Carlos Sada, a veteran Mexican diplomat and the country’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States. Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to outline a clear strategy for dealing with Trump, but Sada tells me the country’s efforts will be much broader than just responding to the presumptive Republican nominee.

Sada says that similar to what the ACJ has done for Israel, Mexico is reaching out to entrepreneurs, media organizations and think tanks to build bridges. He told me Mexico’s 50 consulates will “lobby political, economic and social figures in each district to promote the contributions of Mexicans and how jobs are being generated through U.S. exports to Mexico as well as the direct investments Mexican companies make in American cities.”

“The strategy is not about directly engaging [Trump], but positioning hard data and information,” he said.

Ron Sachs/SRE

Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Carlos Sada and Mexican Undersecretary for North America Paulo Carreño at the AJC conference / Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu met with House Speaker Paul Ryan during her Washington D.C. trip.

Mexico’s hope is that the facts will bust the myths that have corrupted the way people in the U.S. think of their southern neighbor.

“The naked truth is that today over six million U.S. jobs depend on the commercial relation with Mexico. That is more than the entire population of Norway,” Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu said at an AJC plenary. “So allow me to debunk one of the greatest myths: We do not steal jobs from the United States.”

But can Mexico counter Trump with facts alone? Or will the country need to fight back as well? Some worry that Mexico will get pulled into Trump’s trap if it engages directly with the Republican candidate.

“[Trump] wants a response from the Mexican government. That will rally his supporters,” warns Cid Wilson, chief executive officer of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR). Wilson believes the best thing the Mexican government can do is simply stay out of it and let Mexican-Americans do the job for them. “Latinos have the ability to vote,” he told me. “Let them fight this fight and they will win it. Don’t complicate it by bringing in a foreign government.”

Cindy Nava, a Mexican-American DREAMer and graduate student at the University of New Mexico, agrees that it’s ultimately up to Mexico’s diaspora to stop Trump. Nava, who says she’s been harassed on social media by Trump supporters with messages like “Go back to your country,” says Mexico can learn a lot from how the AJC works closely with the Jewish community all over the U.S. “It’s pivotal that [the Mexican consulates] reach out to us. We consider this country our country, so we know the ins and outs here yet we have that deep connection with Mexico. I think we serve as great allies, great strategists.”

Still Nava thinks the Mexican government needs to respond directly to Trump’s racist attacks on Mexico. “If there’s no reaction the Trump phenomenon is going to become real. I don’t like to say I’m fearful that he’ll win, but the reality is the reality. He’s the Republican candidate. The Mexican government should definitely be speaking out.”


MEXICO LOBBY

The Trump threat is also uniting Mexican business interests. In March a coalition of Mexican-American entrepreneurs and other businessmen teamed up to register a lobby in Texas known as the American Mexico Public Affairs Committee (AMxPAC). It’s the first group of its kind to unite the expat community of Mexican companies and professionals in the United States while promoting the type of free trade that allows border communities to thrive.

“We are imitating what the Jews do,” board member Eduardo Bravo told me.

While the Mexican government takes its cues from the AJC, the AMxPAC seems to be following the example of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israeli lobby that’s stirred some controversy for occasionally defying the Obama administration on its policy towards Israel.

Bravo says the Mexican affairs lobby was created to address two main issues: 1) The exodus of Mexican businessmen fleeing drug war-related insecurity in border states; and 2) Donald Trump.

“We have to thank Trump for uniting Mexicans and Mexican-Americans,” he told me. “We also have to thank Trump for putting Mexico on top of the agenda.”

But what happens if Trump wins the presidency? So far the strategy is to deal with Trump the candidate, but not a Trump White House.

AMxPAC says it’s mission is to help Mexico’s relationship with the United States, regardless of whoever the next president is.

“This is much bigger than Trump,” AMxPAC president Antonio Maldonado told me. “We did not create AMxPAC with the purpose of attacking Trump, it’s not a political action committee. Its purpose is to improve the bilateral relationship. If Trump wins the presidency we would have to work with him.”