Trump’s Mideast policy–a smokescreen?

So President Trump keeps sending his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over here to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s hopeless, but perhaps that’s not the real mission. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Though Trump has called the idea of Israel=Palestinian peace the ultimate deal, his business history is in ties with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to believe that just because he’s president, his focus has turned on a dime.

So it’s no accident that Kushner always stops off in Riyadh to talk to Saudi leaders when he’s in the neighborhood. It’s also no accident that the Trump administration is trying to heal (not heel) the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar–so far with no success, as Qatar moves closer to Iran in response to the Saudi move to isolate the rich little kingdom.

All this makes sense in the context of Trump’s obsession with Iran. In the Trumpified world of black and white, the Iranians are all evil, and anyone who opposes them is all good. Anyone who’s been in the Middle East for more than half an hour knows how simplistic that is, but never mind.

The move that would please the Saudis the most would be the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump appears intent on making that happen, even if he has to make up evidence of violations to do it. That would be a disaster, as I have written here and here.

Unfortunately, world media continues to fall into its old patterns of concentrating on the hopeless Israel-Palestinian situation. The Palestinians are reveling in the attention after several years on the back burner–justifiably so, since it’s been shown conclusively that despite years of propaganda, the Israel-Palestinian dispute is not the key to regionwide Middle East peace. The Palestinians are even threatening to dissolve their government (again) and are setting deadlines for the Americans to do something or they’ll go to the UN (again).

It would be funny if it weren’t pathetic. The world has passed them by. Maybe one day a Palestinian will publicly regret how his leaders turned down creation of a Palestinian state twice, in 2000 and 2008. That day isn’t here yet.

But though Jared Kushner’s peace missions appear to be a failure–it’s because we’re looking in the wrong place. As usual.


ISIS on the run in Iraq, Syria–then what?

Iraq has launched a military operation to oust ISIS from another city, while Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria, Russia and Iran are teaming up to defeat ISIS in Syria. I talked about the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

So let’s assume that ISIS is defeated in both Iraq and Syria. That leaves the Iraqi government in charge of its country and the Syrian government in control of what’s left of Syria.

So ISIS is gone, but is it? We got the answer to that question in Barcelona a few days ago, when a terrorist ran over dozens of people and killed at least 14. ISIS claimed responsibility–just an indication that defeating ISIS on the ground in the Mideast is not going to eliminate the threat in the rest of the world. It might even make it worse.

And in Syria–with the US focused on fighting ISIS, the president, Bashar al-Assad, is regaining the offensive and could very well remain in power. This, after six years of civil war, hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, destruction of main cities across the country–and for what?

That’s why the main question, so far unanswered by policymakers in Washington is, ok, after we’ve defeated ISIS on the ground, then what?

My answer is doubling down to help the refugees and help rebuild the country, to restore good will that’s been destroyed over the past decade or two–but I see no sign of such an intention.


So cancel the Iran deal–then what?

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has begun his second term, claiming that the US is violating the deal designed to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons. I discussed this with host P.J. Maloney a few minutes ago on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Rouhani ran for re-election on the basis of the deal, declaring that it would be a step toward rehabilitating Iran’s economy, decimated by years of Western sanctions over its nuclear development program. Now the Trump administration is indicating strongly that it wants to cancel the deal, pointing to Iran’s involvement in terrorism and in the fighting in Syria.

OK, so let’s say the US cancels the deal. Then what? I have yet to see any indication that anyone in Washington has thought past the cancellation itself, as if “punishing” Iran will accomplish something. What it will accomplish, if we can call it that, is a boost to Iran’s extremists and a renewal of its nuclear weapons program.

That’s after the Iranian hardliners say “I told you so, you can’t trust the Americans.” And then the Americans can say, “I told you so, you can’t trust the Iranians.”

So both sides get to say “I told you so,” and…then what? Anybody?

All’s quiet on the Temple Mount–till next time

Two weeks of Palestinian rioting in Jerusalem and the West Bank has died down now. It started July 14 with a terror attack–Israeli Arabs smuggled weapons into the holy site and killed two Israeli police, prompting Israel to erect metal detectors at the site. That set off the riots. I talked about the meaning of all this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The immediate lesson is that in this part of the world, anything can cause a deadly flareup at any time. The larger lessons come from a common Israeli expression–it’s better to be smart than right.

Israel is in charge of security at the Temple Mount. That’s the semi-holy “status quo” that everyone is invoking. So Israel has every right to post metal detectors at the site.

But let’s be smart. First of all, you don’t take s step that you’re not prepared to follow through. Otherwise you set yourself up for a black eye. Further–metal detectors to check each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of worshipers at the site–Muslim worshipers is the wrong step, even though there are already metal detectors at the entrance to the Western Wall, where Jews pray, and the Mughrabi Gate to the Temple Mount, where non-Muslims enter, but that’s beside the point.

The point is that cracking down on everyone is, how shall we say, the American mentality. I just spent two weeks in the US, flying around a bit, taking off my belt and my shoes and enduring X-rays and body searches at airport after airport. Folks, I’m about to turn 70, I look about as threatening as Don Knotts, and I’ve got an American passport, so why? I’ve written about how Israel does this, in contrast.

The smart measure, which Israel in fact employed once, would be to close the Jerusalem site briefly and search for weapons. Then do it again a week later. Then three days later. Then two weeks later. Then one day later. It’s a more efficient measure, less obtrusive, and gets the desired results.

When did Israel get old and stodgy in its security measures? It didn’t. Its leadership, prone to panic and overreaction, did. And there’s the problem. Right but not smart.

And that sets us up for another round of violence the next time the Palestinians see an excuse–assuming as they do that they can get the tough-talking but weak Israeli leadership to back down again.

The media is letting Trump play it–again

I’m leaving for home in Israel in a few hours after two weeks in the US. I expected to be shocked by what I saw here, and I was–but not for the predictable reasons.

I was sitting at a Honda dealership, watching President Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri on TV, taking questions from reporters. All the American reporters seemed to care about was whether Jeff Sessions would be fired. And this after the Senate had its first vote on a health care “plan” that doesn’t really exist, but what we know of where it’s going is that it would be an unmitigated disaster. And there’s the prime minister of Lebanon, for heaven’s sake, standing next to Trump. His country is flooded by refugees from Syria. The US is the leading financial contributor to humanitarian aid projects for the refugees from Syria (why didn’t Trump say that?)  but needs to do much, much more, at the expense of pointless military operations. Only the Lebanese reporters seemed to care about that.

For shame, American reporters.

Who cares about Jeff Sessions? When will my colleagues in the media realize that they are being played again? They covered process and titillation during the campaign, and we ended up with Trump as president. Now they’re covering titillation and Russia while the administration is dismantling some of the most important safety nets for the nation’s poor.

It’s so easy. Find some “evidence” of “collusion” and you’ve got yourself a headline that everyone will scramble to match. Pull an off-color quote out of a speech or a tweet, and there’s you’re next story. No matter that the Russia story will lead nowhere (you heard it here first), and the quotes and tweets are part of the smoke screen that neutralized you so effectively during the campaign. For shame.

It’s easier to get all outraged about an inappropriate speech to Boy Scouts than to actually dig into what these people are doing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, health care and all the important subjects. But we must do that. We must start paying attention to the real issues. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: There is a right way and a wrong way to deal with Trump. We are doing it wrong.

If we continue down this path, the result will be disaster. “We” is the media, in case that’s not clear already. There’s still time to do this right, but it’s running out.

I return to a Mideast in turmoil over metal detectors and terrorists. At least we know what the story is over there, though we are also not immune to being played by skilled politicians.


The Kotel betrayal and Israel’s ugly maturity

Israel needs to be a place where a university student who just survived a jarring antisemitic event can come, take a deep breath, and feel relief among his people.

It isn’t.

The Western Wall, the Kotel, needs to be a place where a person who has had a sudden religious awakening—and every other Jew—can come and pray in the manner he or she finds comfortable.

It isn’t.

Why do Israel and the Kotel need to be these places? Because that’s why there’s an Israel.

Israel was created as a refuge for persecuted Jews around the world, a home for any Jew who wants to be here. Not just ultra-Orthodox Jews, not just Reform Jews. All Jews. Whoever is driven here, whoever is drawn here.

Today’s Israel is a modern state with modern politics. It is strong enough to ignore the idiocy of the United Nations, the hostility of antisemitism from left and right, and, unfortunately, the feelings of Jews outside Israel.

Freezing the plan for a proper egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel to augment or replace the tiny platform paid for and operated by Israel’s own Conservative Jewish movement is wrong, practically and morally. The Kotel has its own extremist rabbi on a government salary who runs the site with tax money.

Even considering a measure that would reject all conversions not performed by the extremists in the Israeli rabbinate—even by other Orthodox Israeli rabbis—is also wrong. With these two measures, the government of Israel is driving away most of Diaspora Jewry and, it must be said, most of Israel’s Jews, too. Such making of the religion hateful unto the people is a clear violation of Halacha, Jewish religious law.

In fact, we don’t need the rabbinate at all for Jewish marriages. That’s according to that well-known radical anti-Jewish Adin Steinsaltz. Oh, wait, he’s the revered Orthodox sage who translated and annotated the Talmud. He writes that marriage is not a sacred undertaking—it’s a contract between a man and a woman. This is from his 1976 book, The Essential Talmud:

“Since the act is not a sacrament, there is no need for priestly or rabbinical sanction…when the act takes place with the concurrence of both parties, a marriage has occurred.”

Just as marriage is not what we think it is, neither is conversion. The Talmud lays down three conditions: mikvah, brit mila and acceptance of the biblical commandments. Any religious court can approve a conversion, and any three Jews in good standing can make up a religious court. That’s it. The Talmud does not require rabbis for marriage, or rabbis for conversion. The added requirements are relatively recent, and they can be undone with just a little moral courage.

What would be the practical affects? If, for the sake of Jewish unity, Israel accepts conversions done abroad, then there will be a small minority of Israelis—the ultra-Orthodox—who will not marry an immigrant. Well, folks, they wouldn’t anyway, so no harm, no foul.

My upcoming second book, Why Are We Still Afraid? chronicles the 45 years I’ve lived in Israel, starting in 1972. Then Israel was a small, weak nation less than two years before a devastating war that nearly drove the Jews into the sea. Today Israel has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the region and has nothing to fear, existentially. Israel can handle Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and all the rest. It might not be pleasant, but we can handle them.

But can we handle ourselves?

I remember my first trip to the Kotel. It was just a few weeks after I made Aliyah. I got a telegram that my best friend had died suddenly at the age of 26. I got a bottle of whiskey and headed for the Kotel. Until then, I had never been drawn to the site—I was a Reform Jew, not much into ritual or holy sites. But the Kotel was here, and I was here, 6,000 miles away from my friend, separated forever. I spent several hours just sitting in front of the Kotel with my bottle and my grief. No one bothered me. No one surrounded me, threw bags of feces at me, blew whistles in my ears.

Yet even then, Orthodox politicians were fomenting coalition crises with the “Who is a Jew” issue. Pun intended—the writing was on the wall.

I got married in 1973. I had to bring two witnesses to the rabbinate to testify that I was indeed born Jewish. Of course, having been here such a short time, and coming from a small city, I couldn’t produce two such witnesses. Neither could most other new immigrants. But it was enough to bring in two friends who were willing to testify. The rabbis knew they didn’t actually know, and we knew they knew, but it didn’t matter back then.

Today, the Rabbinate often demands written certification from rabbis they recognize—“just” being an Orthodox rabbi isn’t enough—to affirm a person’s Jewishness. So I probably couldn’t get married in Israel today. My parents were Holocaust survivors who escaped from Germany with the clothes on their backs—no documents, no ketuba. My grandmothers were murdered by the Nazis in death camps, so there are no gravestones to photograph (yes, they demand that).

So here I am, the son of Holocaust survivors who were met at the train station in Fort Wayne, Indiana, by representatives of the local Reform Jewish congregation, went to services there for as long as they lived, brought up their two children in that framework, watched me make Aliyah and become Orthodox—and I probably couldn’t get married in Israel? What’s going on here?

Israel was founded by anti-religious Labor Zionists. Anti-religious in this case did not mean anti-Jewish—they accepted the religion but not its practices. That’s why they gave military exemptions to a few hundred ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, for example. The ultra-Orthodox segment formed a political party or two, but because of their anti-Zionist ideology, they refused to take part in the government.

And that is what has changed, alongside the maturing of Israel’s society, economy, and military. The ultra-Orthodox, just 10 percent of the population, hold the balance of power. No coalition government, even those without them, can afford to alienate them—because next time they might be needed for a coalition, and there’s always a next time.

So Israel has abdicated its social responsibility to its own people and to the Jews of the world for the sake of coalition politics. Without flinching, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation from AIPAC, the group that lobbies in Washington on Israel’s behalf, that he had to freeze the Kotel pluralism deal and keep the conversion bill on the table because the alternative was to lose his coalition majority.

To which many of us would say, so lose your majority. Let’s have an election about these very issues. A clear majority of Israelis hotly oppose the ultra-Orthodox stuffing their practices down everyone’s throat. Maybe we could finally have a government that puts them back in their place, along the fringes of Israeli society, practicing their Judaism the way they want and letting the rest of us practice ours the way we want.

My ideal is an open marketplace of ideas—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and civil marriage, a whole range of conversion practices—and let the people decide individually what they want. Ideological competition, not religious coercion.

Persuade us that your way is the best way. Don’t try to force us to accept your way as the only way.

As the old Israeli song goes, “The day will come.”

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MARK LAVIE, an Orthodox Jew, has covered Israel and the Middle East as a foreign correspondent since 1972. His book Broken Spring examines the failure of the Arab revolution.