Ceasefire in Gaza, Mixed Messages in DC

By | May 15, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. Another Round of Fighting in Gaza, Another Round of Responses from Washington

Saturday marked the end of the latest bloody round in the seemingly endless conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. This time, it was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a relatively small faction, that was responsible for the barrage of rocket and missile attacks against Israel. Hamas, the larger group controlling the Gaza Strip, sat this round (and the previous round) out.

But apart from the slightly different players, everything else was depressingly familiar: the inevitable escalation, the loss of life on both sides (35 in Gaza, 2 in Israel), the eventual negotiated ceasefire and the clear understanding—on both sides—that another round of fighting is not a question of if, but of when.

As has been the case in recent years, the United States chose to stay behind the scenes. This has been Washington’s preferred method of operation when the destruction and casualties don’t mount too high.

The task of brokering a deal to end the fighting was handed, as always, to Egypt, with help from Qatar. And, as always, they delivered. After five days of fighting, nearly 1,500 rockets and missiles fired at Israel and six leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad killed by Israeli targeted attacks, a tense calm has been restored. The details of the deal were vague and did little more than express the sense on both sides that, for now, there’s nothing more to gain by fighting.

Washington stepped in publicly only after the deal was reached, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre welcoming the Egyptian-brokered agreement, thanking the leaders of Egypt and Qatar and reminding the world that “U.S. officials worked closely with regional partners to achieve this resolution.”

Taking the passenger seat is a result not only of the restrictions U.S. diplomats face in dealing directly with leaders of terror groups in Gaza, but also of the wish to limit the amount of political capital spent on brokering a temporary deal, which is hard to obtain and doesn’t promise the administration any glory or gratitude.

2. Bernie Takes Another Step to the Left

On the Hill, lawmakers chose to focus on the 1948 origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a debate that assured ample posturing opportunities for all sides of the political divide.

Democrat Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the only member of Congress with immediate Palestinian roots, planned to hold an event at the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday marking 75 years since the Nakba, a term meaning “catastrophe,” and used by Palestinians to describe the founding of the State of Israel and the destruction it brought upon Palestinians.

When word of the event reached House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, fresh from his trip to Israel, where he celebrated the 75th anniversary of the state’s founding, he called off the event—several accounts say he used his authority to take her room reservation for his own meeting.

But Tlaib found a savior on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, where Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont offered to host the event. And so he did, hosting the Nakba meeting in the room designated for the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which he chairs. The event, by the way, was packed, with many attendees standing in the back or sitting on the floor.

American politicians usually come out scarred from trying to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this time all actors could be quite pleased: Tlaib stayed true to her cause, McCarthy won a couple more pro-Israel points, and Sanders, who is also behind a recent call to condition arms sales to Israel, further established his position as the most senior American politician willing to criticize Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

3. Meanwhile, Are Israeli Protesters Pulling U.S. Jews In? 

Fighting in Gaza forced a pause on the debate tearing Israeli society apart.

The sound of rockets silenced, at least for a week, the protests on the streets and the political struggle over Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

But not for long.

Protesters, though in smaller numbers, were back out in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, and in New York, too, where Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Reform movement, spoke to the gathering of several hundred activists expressing their solidarity with Israelis fighting against the proposed judicial overhaul.

As the debate enters its fifth month, the issue of American Jewish involvement has become more salient. In a recent series of news reports for Kan 11, I explored this question, and there are some thoughts that are worth repeating.

What makes these protests different, in terms of the relationship between the Jewish communities in Israel and in the United States, is that for the first time, Israelis are actively asking diaspora Jews to join the debate and make their voices heard. For liberal American Jews, this makes all the difference.

“I think previously, a lot of us felt we don’t live there, our children are not in the army, who are we to speak,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn’s largest Reform synagogue. “And now Israelis are saying to us, please raise your voices, say what you think. And so I’m able now to stand on the bimah and say to my community: This is the time. Write, speak, talk to everyone you know, post on social media, express your opinion, because Israelis are really asking for our solidarity.”

Timoner’s synagogue, struggling with how to mark Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, this year, eventually decided  to forgo the usual event and instead honor an Israeli organization fighting against the judicial overhaul.

But for those on the right wing of the American Jewish community, this plea from Israeli protesters for help is exactly what’s wrong.

“American Jews have been invited into a kind of radical opposition to the proposed changes by Israelis, through their public rhetoric in English, addressing American Jews: ‘You have to save us,’” said Elliott Abrams, a former adviser to Republican presidents who is now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the chairman of the Tikvah Fund, a conservative Jewish organization. “The [Israeli] opposition,” Abrams added, “having failed to win in the polls in five elections, and worse for them, having Netanyahu back, are saying, okay, we can’t win this electorally so will win it by foreign intervention.”

4. Where Should the Jewish Community Draw the Line? 

Assessing the appropriate amount of Jewish American pressure on a domestic issue in Israel is more than a left vs. right question.

Abe Foxman, perhaps the best known leader of American Jewry in decades, is among those trying to figure it out.

Foxman, the former Anti-Defamation League leader, sent shock waves through the Jewish community back in December when he told The Jerusalem Post that “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.” For one of Israel’s staunchest defenders throughout the years, this was quite a statement. And he hasn’t backed down. “I can’t see myself supporting an Israel that doesn’t respect my children and grandchildren,” he told me last month, adding a direct attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to Foxman, is “standing up there lying, lying, lying, lying, lying.”

But Foxman doesn’t support American Jews taking to the streets of New York, Washington, or San Francisco to protest Netanyahu’s government. This is his red line. 

“Americans, when they see demonstrations against Israel, they don’t know whether it’s left or right, friend or foe,” he said, explaining that most Americans, who do not follow the ins and outs of Israeli politics, would fail to understand that those American Jews protesting Israel are doing so out of love for the Jewish state and as a show of support.

“It doesn’t make me comfortable and I don’t think American Jews should do it,” Foxman added.

5. Trump’s Lawyer Would Love to Represent Bibi

I also spoke with David Schoen, the Atlanta-based attorney who came to national fame when he represented former president Donald Trump in his post-January 6 impeachment trial.

Schoen, an Orthodox Jew who attends synagogue twice a day and who made sure to cover his head and say a blessing while drinking water during the impeachment trial, has mixed feelings about the judicial overhaul in Israel.        And Schoen, who for a while served as chair of the Zionist Organization of America, also holds a nuanced view about Netanyahu.

“I’d love to represent him at some point, if he’s interested,” he said, perhaps jokingly. But Schoen is far from agreeing with the way Netanyahu is managing this crisis. “He’s a real figure in history. I don’t know if it’s him or the media or a combination of both, but he tarnishes his reputation when he gets involved in situations where there could be a conflict,” Schoen said.

Netanyahu has yet to call him for legal representation. Trump, on the other hand, may be in more urgent need of Schoen’s legal services.


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