Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The 2015 Anja Niedringhaus Award for Courage in Photojournalism goes to Heidi Levine

Heidi Levine has been awarded the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism award for her coverag of last summer's Gaza war.

From James Estrin's article in the NYT (with additional photographs):

Ms. Levine has covered conflict in the Middle East for 30 years, working in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Libya, although she has devoted most of her time to covering often-violent news in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Throughout, she has risked her life, and had “many close calls,” even as she raised three children who are now in their mid-20s.
“It’s like a calling,” she said. “I don’t want anyone anywhere to have the excuse that they didn’t know or were not informed about what is going on. In the Holocaust, people claimed they didn’t know or turned a blind eye toward it.” 
The award, created by the International Women’s Media Foundation, recognized Ms. Levine’s work in Gaza. While she has covered three wars in the last five years and is intimately familiar with both sides, she says she had never seen this level of violence or hatred.
“To be honest, what I saw was hell,” she said of the last Gaza war in August 2014, when she stayed for 40 days documenting the effects of Israel’s bombardment. “Every day I went out to photograph I thought the next day could not possibly be worse but somehow it was. It was endless and shocking.”

Saturday, March 21, 2015

No Better Time for Peace than the Present

Charles Krauthammer has been an influential voice in American politics for 35 years.  He worked for the Carter administration (psychiatric planning), became a speechwriter for Walter Mondale, and in 1981 he joined The New Republic as an editor and writer.  He is credited with identifying and articulating the "Reagan Doctrine," which has had purchase in foreign policy circles. He has won a "National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism" and a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He was a panelist on the PBS weekly roundtable Inside Washington (1990-2013).

Over the years he has drifted to the war-mongering right.  For the past decade he has been an analyst and commentator at Fox News. His book Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics was on the New York Times best seller list for 22 weeks (number one for 10 weeks).  In 2006, the Financial Times named him the most influential commentator in America.

Influential commentators can cause harm with poor formulation of issues.  Krauthammer recently caused mischief by arguing that now is not a time for peace in Israel/Palestine, and we shouldn't expect Israel's government to work for peace.

Krauthammer's Counter-Productive and False Case for Bibi

On Thursday March 19, 2015, Krauthammer published an article in the Washington Post and The National Review arguing aggressively that the prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine are dead; and not--he wants us to understand--because Netanyahu has declared that no Palestinian State will emerge on his watch, but rather because the Palestinians have unreasonably rejected "their own state--with its capital in Jerusalem and every Israeli settlement in the new Palestine uprooted." No peace in our time, but not because of Bibi, says the byline in the National Review.

Here is Krauthammer:
... There would be no peace and no Palestinian state if Isaac Herzog were prime minister either. Or Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert for that matter. The latter two were (non-Likud) prime ministers who offered the Palestinians their own state — with its capital in Jerusalem and every Israeli settlement in the new Palestine uprooted — only to be rudely rejected.... The fundamental reality remains: This generation of Palestinian leadership — from Yasser Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas — has never and will never sign its name to a final peace settlement dividing the land with a Jewish state.
.... [T]here is a second reason a peace agreement is impossible: the supreme instability of the entire Middle East. .... From Mali to Iraq, everything is in flux. Amid this mayhem, by what magic would the West Bank, riven by a bitter Fatah–Hamas rivalry, be an island of stability? What would give any Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement even a modicum of durability?   ...
Peace awaits three things. Eventual Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state. A Palestinian leader willing to sign a deal based on that premise. A modicum of regional stability that allows Israel to risk the potentially fatal withdrawals such a deal would entail. 
I believe such a day will come. But there is zero chance it comes now or even soon. That’s essentially what Netanyahu said Thursday in explaining — and softening — his no-Palestinian-state statement. ...  Blaming Netanyahu for banishing peace, however, is mindless. 

No, Blaming Netanyahu for Banishing Peace is Not "Mindless"

The main point Krauthammer makes, that Palestinians would never accept a division of the land with Israelis, is a false premise.  If Palestinians were offered their own state, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and every Israeli West Bank Settlement uprooted, they would accept that.  If such an offer were made the prospects for peace would skyrocket.

Krauthammer is not serious.  At no point were the Palestinians offered such a deal.  Ron Pundak and Yair Hirshfeld initiated the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians in 1993.  The Oslo Principles contemplated an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, gradual devolution of economic power to the Palestinians, and international economic assistance to the nascent Palestinian entity in Gaza.  But as we know, Netanyahu railed against Oslo from the start and has undermined it at every turn.  He contributed to the poisonous atmosphere that resulted in Rabin's assassination in 1995.  He has been unequivocal that Jerusalem remain Israel's undivided capital and that Israel will not retreat from any of the settlements in the West Bank.  He is fully committed to continue the settlement process.  To the extent that Olmert and Barak were willing to compromise, it's clear Netanyahu is not willing to make such compromises.  So what's Krauthammer talking about?

After invading and occupying Gaza, the West Bank, and Golan in 1967, successive Israeli governments have refused to abandon settlements, or to halt settlement activity, without a final end-of-conflict agreement.

Here is Hussein Agha in a 2010 interview with the Middle East Policy Council:
I do not think there is an Israeli government anymore that is willing to give up Israel’s material assets on the West Bank without concluding an end-of-conflict agreement. Whether the assets are theirs or not is not the point; they are in possession of them. If they do not get an end of the conflict in return, why should they risk giving these assets up and reducing their maneuverability and their chance to have as much control over security as they want? They are on record since the Barak government that an end of-conflict agreement that ends Palestinian claims is what they expect in return for acquiescing to a Palestinian state. 
Netanyahu and Krauthammer seem to accept this formulation: it's inherent in their "peace cannot be achieved while the region is in turmoil" approach. But allowing turmoil to stand in the way of discussing a vision for peace is not helpful. It sets up an impossible problem. The region is unstable and security is a concern, but occupation and ongoing settlement make matters much worse.  At the same time Israel's ongoing settlement activity gradually makes the formation of a separate Palestinian State impossible.

The outline of a vision that Palestinians and Israelis can buy into is a necessary pre-requisite to ending the conflict.  No one suggests that Israel give up on its security concerns, or that it evacuate the West Bank tomorrow. Israel can and will maintain its security presence in the West Bank and Gaza for as long as necessary.  But there has to be a vision for peace that both sides can buy into, and peace-makers must be eager to work towards that vision, not a way from it.

Netanyahu, of course, is not alone in lacking a vision for peace.  Peace with the Palestinians was not under discussion during the just completed Israeli election campaign. Israelis feel that the status quo is tolerable and reasonably safe behind their separation wall, IDF cordons, military occupation, and police patrols. Palestinians don't feel so safe.

Krauthammer points to the lack of Palestinian elections as an excuse for Netanyahu not engaging in peace talks.  But a year ago the Palestinian Authority and Hamas formed a unity government and announced they would hold elections in September 2014.  In response Netanyahu walked out on the peace talks; a Hamas affiliated faction then kidnapped and murdered three Yeshiva students in the West Bank and Israel arrested every Hamas connected person they could get their hands on—on the pretext of “searching for the boys” when the evidence was clear they were dead from the start; and when Hamas retaliated with rockets from Gaza, Israel killed 2200, destroyed 10,000 buildings, 18,000 housing units, displaced 500,000 people, left 100,000 homeless, and leveled Gaza’s infrastructure. To say, in light of all that, that the problem is Abbas not having elections is perverse.

It’s false for Krauthammer to say that “any Arab-Israeli peace settlement would require Israel to make dangerous and inherently irreversible territorial concessions on the West Bank in return for promises and guarantees.” It requires no such thing. What is required from Israel--if there are to be two states-- is a) a commitment to peace; b) an agreement on final boundaries; c) no more settlement activity aimed at making the emergence of a Palestinian state impossible; d) a commitment to share Jerusalem in some manner; e) a commitment to jointly develop and share infrastructure (water, wastewater, energy, roads, telecommunications, busing, trains, business infrastructure); f) agreement on how to handle the existing settlements; and g) concrete steps to make the life of Palestinians better. None of these things require a change in security arrangements before it’s safe to change them.

Netanyahu is on the wrong side of every one of these issues:  he makes no commitment to peace, he vows the boundary will always be the Jordan river, he continues to steal Palestinian land, water, and resources, he vows not to abandon any settlements, and he is taking concrete steps to make the life of Palestinians worse instead of better.

Noone is saying Israel should rely or trust on "outside guarantees."  Israel will provide its own security. What people are saying is: stop treating the Palestinians like shit.  Netanyahu is not about to.

Krauthammer ends with a final red herring: Palestinian acceptance of a “Jewish State.” The truth is Palestinians have accepted Israel as a state. So has the Arab League. If there is a Palestinian state that emerges, Jews will have a solid majority in Israel which guarantees the “Jewish” nature of their state. There is the issue of minority rights in Israel—but that’s a civil rights struggle that can be tackled without civil war.  If Israel is serious about two states, the need for Arabs to accept Israel as a “Jewish” state becomes moot. Israel will be Jewish.  On the other hand if there is no second state that emerges—highly likely at this point—then Israel/Palestine can’t be “Jewish” without also being an apartheid ethnocracy.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Israeli Election Results: An "Extreme Right Wing Government" says Herzog

Despite some uncertainty and excitement in the last week of the election (what else is new), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his party have prevailed in the election for the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on March 17, 2015.  Moreover, it appears he will have a stronger position, with a more ideologically right leaning coalition behind him, than he had going into the election.  

Netanyahu has won a right wing mandate. Below is a listing of the parties in the 19th Knesset (2013-15), the latest polling going into last Tuesday's election, and the results (pending final tweaking). 

The big winner here is clearly Likud, up 11 seats in the upcoming 20th Knesset (from 19 to 30). In the latest polling prior to the election, Likud was polling at 20 seats and appeared to have lost momentum in the election.  This resulted in some feverish last minute campaigning by Netanyahu. The day before the election he unequivocally threw the two state solution under the bus and affirmed that no Palestinian state would be allowed to emerge--not on his watch. Soon after the polls opened, he sounded the alarm on his Facebook page that his "right-wing regime" was being threatened because "the Arabs are mobilizing in large numbers to the polls."  Looking at the latest pre-election polling numbers, it appears that Netanyahu's apocalyptic appeal and last minute campaigning resulted in shifting 10 seats from the other conservative block parties to Likud: ~4 seats from Naftalie Bennet's Jewish Home party, five seats from (new Sha's offshoot) Yachad, one seat from United Torah, and one from Shas.  All of these seats would have been in any likely Likud governing coalition, so the overall balance of power was not shifted by this shift, but it did strengthen Netanyahu's party and mandate, and eliminated any chance for Herzog to attempt to form a government.

2013 Knesset Latest Polling pre-3/17/15 Results 3/17/15
Likud  19 20 30
Yesh Atid  19 11 11
Jewish Home 12 12 8
Yisrael Beitenu 12 6 6
Hatnuah 6 * **
Labor 15 24 24
Kulanu (new) 8 10
Yachad (new) 5 0
Shas  11 8 7
United Torah 7 7 6
Meretz 6 5 4
United Arab List 4 14 14
Hadash  4 *
Balad 3 *
Kadima 2 0 0
120 120 120

Isaac Herzog's Labor and Tzipi Livini's Hatnua parties increased their combined strength from 21 seats in 2013 to 24 seats in the upcoming 20th Knesset.  The secular centrist Yesh Atid seems to have lost seats (down to 11 from 19 in the last Knesset) to Moshe Khalon's  Kulanu party, which focuses on cost of living and other economic issues.   

Pre-election polling generally held true for the center and center-left parties.  It was the right that rallied behind Netanyahu in the last few days.

Isaac Herzog has acknowledged that the Zionist Union (Labor/Hatnua) has no realistic option to sitting in opposition.  

The Jerusalem Post reports: 
"We have proven that we know how to be a fighting opposition," Herzog said at Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv (on Wednesday).

Herzog said that the Zionist Union would present viable alternatives in all areas and in all subjects to the future "extreme right-wing" government.

Herzog said he and Livni would continue to lead a large and strong sector of the Israeli public that wants a Jewish and democratic state that is both safe and just.

"We will not apologize and we will not lower our flags, but we will serve the people who took to the streets and to the ballot box with a big hopes," Herzog said.

Four Results from this Election

First, Israel will have a governing coalition that is more right-wing than the last.  It remains to be seen what Netanyahu does with it.  For example, will there be swift passage of the terrible Nation State Bill into the Basic Law?  Time will tell.  For certain, it will mean an ongoing continued settlement process in the West Bank, no progress on any peace talks with the Palestinians, and a continuation of the harsh status quo for Palestinians. 

Second, the pressure for a post "two-state-solution" vision will increase.  The two state solution, which was the hallmark of the Oslo peace process, has been dead for a decade or more. Nevertheless liberal Zionists from J-Street to Peter Binart to Israeli politicians have continued to parade the corpse as "the only solution." Netanyahu's declaration of "no Palestinian state on my watch, ever" begs the question: what's next. In an interview with the Swiss paper Die Neue Zuercher Zeitung  [German] this morning, Amos Oz, recalls how after 1967, there was jubilation among Israeli Jews that the West Bank and Gaza had been "liberated. " He railed against this, he says, reminding his countrymen that territory cannot be liberated, only people can be liberated.  Today, the Palestinians need to be liberated from a 48 year military occupation that denies them due process of law, and denies them a voice in the political process that governs their lives.  Netanyahu has just guaranteed Israeli voters that Palestinians won't have their own state on his watch. So what's the alternate vision for achieving justice for all inhabitants of the land of Israel/Palestine?

Third, the international movement to isolate, delegitimate, boycott, and sanction Israel will benefit from this result. Whether we think BDS is a good idea, or bad, the official end of the two state solution, and no alternative vision, will feed and strengthen the BDS movement.

Fourth, the various Palestinian parties have combined into one Joint Arab List for this election and have become the third largest party in the Knesset with 14 seats.  They have an attractive and skillful leader in Ayman Odeh.  With an effective and united voice, the Arab minority may become a more effective voice within the Knesset.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Insightful Portrait of the Israel/Palestinian Conflict from the Travel Channel

Breaking Borders: Jerusalem (first aired 3/15/15)

Is hard news analysis being taken over by cooking shows?

It seems that way.  In 2013 Anthony Bourdain began hosting a food oriented travel show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown for CNN, which won an award for its segment on Gaza and the West Bank.  Bourdain shared meals with interesting chefs on all sides of the conflict, including the West Bank, Gaza, and Sderot.  Now the Travel Channel has gone CNN one better with an excellent program "Breaking Borders" which gets everyone around one table. The result is a compelling glimpse at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  The hosts are award winning Portuguese journalist Mariana van Zeller and heavily tattooed, but charming, Southern California chef Michael Voltaggio.  Zeller gathered a Palestinian book store owner from East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers, and an Israeli Peace Now activist for a memorable kosher meal at Tanya Winery, located in the Ofra settlement.

The video provides an excellent flavor of the atmosphere and tension in Jerusalem, Hebron, and around the settlements.  Judging by this first program, Breaking Borders will be show to keep your eye on.

Hat tip to "Kris" and "Just," commenters at Mondoweiss who brought the program to my attention.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Israeli Election 7: The Last Pre-Election Poll

The election is next Tuesday. From +972 Magazine: 
According to Project61, an independent polling project that aggregates and attempts to correct biases in the major pre-election surveys, the Zionist Camp is currently polling at 24 seats as opposed to Netanyahu’s 20 seats. According to Israeli law, polls are not allowed to be published after Friday.
Here are the numbers going into the election.  It will be interesting to compare the results and watch the subsequent coalition building to form a government.  The governing coalition will need to control 61 votes.  There is no obvious or easy way to get there.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sheldon Adelson is not the Problem

Sheldon Adelson 
The world loves a villain. At age 81, with beady eyes, mangy hair, and a monster ego, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson easily fits the role.

For many, Adelson personifies the evil force of money taking over our politics. Moreover, his politics are bad. He supports Republicans. He supports Netanyahu. He's the Rupert Murdoch of Israel. He expects obeisance to his desired policy; he makes politicians dance the Hora to get at his money. His wife drops purses on Democrats in Congress.

Adelson and his wife were in the gallery during the Netanyahu speech to Congress on March 3, 2015. The sighting provoked several op-eds pointing the finger at Adelson as exerting undue influence over our politics.

Take, for example, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship in Salon, on March 7: "Everything you need to know about Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress Tuesday was the presence in the visitor’s gallery of that man [Sheldon Adelson]. We are hostage to his fortune," they say.
....Not only is this casino mogul the unofficial head of the Republican Party in America (“he with the gold rules”), he is the uncrowned King of Israel — David with a printing press and checkbook instead of a slingshot and a stone. All of this came to the fore in Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday: the US cannot determine its own policy in the Middle East and the majority in Congress are under the thumb of a foreign power. 
Like a King Midas colossus, Sheldon Adelson bestrides the cause of war and peace in the most volatile region of the world. And this is the man who — at Yeshiva University in New York in 2013 — denounced President Obama’s diplomatic efforts with Iran and proposed instead that the United States drop an atomic bomb in the Iranian desert and then declare: “See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.”
Tyler Durden, over at Zero Hedge, picked up the ball on March 9 and ran with it:
This whole thing [about dropping atomic bombs on Teheran] takes on a much greater level of significance given Adelson’s near total control of the U.S. Republican party, as well as his control over Israel’s Prime Minister. The man is not only the 8th richest man in the world, he’s also a menace to civilized society, and people need to start paying a lot more attention to him.
Finally, yesterday, Tom Friedman chimed in in the New York Times:
[W]hen it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time. ....
When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling. I’m sure Adelson cares deeply about Israel, but he lacks any sense of limits in how he exercises his extraordinary financial power — power he is using to simultaneously push Israel and America toward eliminating any two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, toward defunding the Palestinian Authority and toward a confrontation with Iran, not a diplomatic solution. People need to know this.
But is this true?  Are we hostages to Adelson's money? Does he control near total control over the U.S. Republican party? Is Congressional support for Israel the result of Adelson's money? Is the rightward drift of Israeli and U.S. politics due to Adelson?  I don't think so.

U.S. Support for Israel

Israel has enjoyed overwhelming American support from the outset. Walter Russell Mead notes in a 2008 Foreign Policy Magazine essay that whereas Presidential advisers are often ambivalent, public support has been consistent and widespread. "In the United States," says Mead, "a pro-Israel foreign policy does not represent the triumph of a small lobby over the public will. It represents the power of public opinion to shape foreign policy in the face of concerns by foreign policy professionals."

Mead points out that this popular American support for Zionism goes all the way back to the founding fathers.  Some of it is was based on biblical prophetic literalism (e.g. John Adams); some of it came from a vision of the United States as an embodiment of God's building a better world through human progress, and that the United States was thus intimately linked with the ancient Promised Land; and some of it, throughout the 19th century, came from liberal secular Zionists who associated the restoration of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital with the general march of human progress.
The writer Herman Melville expressed this view: "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people -- the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world." From the time of the Puritans to the present day, preachers, thinkers, and politicians in the United States -- secular as well as religious, liberal as well as conservative -- have seen the Americans as a chosen people, bound together less by ties of blood than by a set of beliefs and a destiny. Americans have believed that God (or history) has brought them into a new land and made them great and rich and that their continued prosperity depends on their fulfilling their obligations toward God or the principles that have blessed them so far. Ignore these principles -- turn toward the golden calf -- and the scourge will come.
The United States and Israel are both settler states. Over the history of the U.S. we have looked to God's biblical promise of Canaan to the Jews as a mere prelude to our own settlement of the new land and conquest of its people.  Other factors have contributed to the close bond, such as the tremendous shock of the Holocaust, and American Jewish support of the civil rights struggle.

After 1967 there has been a rightward drift in support for Israel in this country. On the left, support has waned due to the occupation and weakening support among Blacks, and on the right, support has strengthened with a growing political activism within the Evangelical Christian Church and a strong adverse reaction to Islamist movements throughout the Middle East among populist-nationalist ("Jacksonian") voters.
Many Jacksonians formed negative views of the Arabs during the Cold War. The Palestinians and the Arab states, they noted, tended to side with the Soviet Union and the Nonaligned Movement against the United States. The Egyptians responded to support from the United States in the 1956 Suez crisis by turning to the Soviets for arms and support, and Soviet weapons and Soviet experts helped Arab armies prepare for wars against Israel....[As] events in the Middle East have unfolded since 1967, they have become more sympathetic to Israel even as many non-Jacksonian observers in the United States -- and many more people in the rest of the world -- have become less so. 
The Six-Day War reignited the interest of prophetic Zionists in Israel and deepened the perceived connections between Israel and the United States for many Jacksonians. After the Cold War, the Jacksonians found that the United States' opponents in the region, such as Iraq and Iran, were the most vociferous enemies of Israel as well.
Jacksonians admire victory, and total victory is the best kind. The sweeping, overwhelming triumph of Israeli arms in 1967 against numerically superior foes (sic) from three different countries caught the imaginations of Jacksonians -- especially at a time when the United States' poor performance in Vietnam had made many of them pessimistic about their own country's future. Since then, some of the same actions that have hurt Israel's image in most of the world -- such as ostensibly disproportionate responses to Palestinian terrorism -- have increased its support among Jacksonians.
Mead concludes:
One thing, at least, seems clear. In the future, as in the past, U.S. policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be.
And this holds true for Sheldon Adelson and his money as well. The U.S. has been supporting Israel since long before Sheldon Adelson made his first billion. Congressional support for Israel is not the result of his money, it's due to the will of the American majority.

Rightward Drift in Politics

Just like Adelson and his money are not the cause of Congressional support for Israel, Adelson and his money are not the cause of the rightward drift in politics, not in the U.S., and not in Israel. In the U.S. the shift in favor of Republicans over the past 30 years has been primarily due to the fact that Southern Democrats switched parties after the Civil Rights movement, they are now Southern Republicans, and the fact that there are structural imbalances in our Constitution that strongly favor less populated conservative rural regions over densely urban areas. In Israel, a rightward drift in politics is due in part to the First and Second Intifadas, the occupation, ongoing hostile relations with neighbors, and the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the Soviet Union.  This shift happened long before Adelson built his first casino.  The two-state solution has been a corpse since 2000. Netanyahu killed it long before Adelson became a large donor.

Had Adelson gone broke in 2008, our Congress would be no more functional today. Politics in the U.S. and Israel would be no different. The two-state solution would still be dead.

Just Another Politically Active Rich Guy

Just like it's mean-spirited and beside the point to demonize Donald Trump because of his mystery hair (although it's fun to do so) it's misguided to demonize Adelson because of his looks, his lack of education, or the fact that he spends some of his money on political causes (although it's easy to do so).

Fact is, Adelson is an American success story.  He came from humble background and he built, and re-built his empire from the ground up. He has swagger, but he also has a twinkle. He has a strong and accomplished woman for his second wife. You've got to admire that.

Adelson co-developed COMDEX, the premier computer trade show during the 1980's and '90s. He earned his first $500 million when he sold this business in 1995.  At that time Adelson was 62 years old and he could have retired and enjoyed a very nice lifestyle. But he didn't. He took this money, and his share of the Sands hotel which he acquired in 1988, and built his Casino empire in Las Vegas, Macao, Pennsylvania, and Singapore. By 2008 his net worth was ~$34 billion. He lost $15 billion of this during the crash, but he's back to nearly $30 billion now.

He has a reputation for being tough.  And Steve Wynn, the casino competitor on the Las Vegas strip, says: “Sheldon is a man who harbors a lot of animosity toward a lot of people, [a]nd when Sheldon is angry, he gets nasty.” That stands to reason, but it's not what we are thinking of when we dub him a political villain.

The Adelson foundation gives a lot of money for medical research; he has funded school construction in Las Vegas; he supports Republican candidates for office; and he supports a lot of charitable causes in Israel [his wife was born in Haifa and received her MD degree from Tel Aviv University]; he has contributed $140 million to the Birthright Israel foundation, which finances Jewish youth trips to Israel; he has given large donations to Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum. In the 2012 election cycle, Adelson is reported to have given at least $98 million to get Republicans elected.

We might choose to spend this money differently, but there is nothing villainous about Adelson being engaged in the political process and with charitable causes.  

It's silly to suggest that Adelson's extremely naive and impolitic statement about threatening Iran by dropping a nuclear bomb in the desert is in any way dictating or influencing either Israeli or American policy.  Netanyahu has been beating the drum on Iran and its nuclear ambitions since at least 1993. If Israel decides to go it alone and ultimately bomb Iran, which seems unlikely, it won't be because of anything Adelson says or doesn't say. 

Large donor money is a problem in politics. But total political spending in the 2012 election cycle was $7 billion, according to the FEC.  The $100-$150 million that Adelson contributed, therefore, represents less than 2 percent of the total spending.  Or, to put it another way, Adelson's entire contribution can be neutralized with 300,000 $50 political donations--that's a $50 donation from .002 of voters who actually cast a ballot. 

Big money in politics is a problem, but lack of participation is a bigger problem. The political orientation of our 100 wealthiest citizens is the least of our problems. 


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"A Bunch of Irresponsible, Provincial, Childish Idiots"

Meet Tom Cotton the junior senator from Arkansas and currently the youngest Senator in Congress (37 years old).  He's a striver and sadly we'll be hearing more of him.  

He's "Sarah Palin with a Harvard Degree" says Salon. Born in Dardanelle, Arkansas--a small town of less than 5,000--he attended Harvard, studied government, wrote for the Harvard Crimson, and graduated magna cum laude. He went on to Harvard law school and graduated in 2002. After law school he clerked for an appellate judge for one year, and then was a junior associate in a law firm for two years.

I went to college. I've been a partner in two successful law firms.  I've hired smart Harvard grads.  I can tell you that at this point in his career (2005) Tom Cotton knew approximately nothing of the law or how the world worked.  What's he done since then?

In 2005 Cotton enlisted in the army.  He became a junior officer, served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a platoon leader and collected several medals. In between his two tours of duty he occupied himself conducting military honor funerals for veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.

After his discharge from the army in September 2009, he briefly joined a consulting firm before returning to work on the family cattle farm.

Like law practice and army service, cattle ranching didn't last long.  In 2012 he was elected to the House of Representatives from Arkansas's 4th Congressional District. Like Sarah Palin, Cotton was endorsed by John McCain and supported by the Tea Party.  He was identified as a rising star and last fall Arkansas elected him to the Senate.  He was sworn in for his role as the youngest member of the Senate two months ago, on January 6, 2015.

Listen to the video clip above.... Does this sound like someone at a high school debate, or does this sound like the person we want to decide for us whether to go to war with Iran?

Yesterday, March 9, 2015, Cotton wrote a hectoring open letter to the Iranian leadership in an attempt to sabotage the ongoing P5 + 1 negotiations about Iran's nuclear program:
 "[I]t has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our consitutional system. ...Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement ... The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen.... We hope this letter enriches your understanding of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress." 
This letter was joined by 47 Republican Senators, including the entire Senate Majority leadership and likely Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul.

As Lisa Goldman expressed it on Twitter:  What a "Bunch of irresponsible, provincial, childish idiots."

We Don't Elect Junior Senators to Run our Foreign Policy

We'd like our foreign policy to be conducted by competent, experienced, and wise people.  We elect presidents to fill that role.  We expect presidents to surround themselves with wise counsellors and cabinet minsters.  We expect that Presidents should have enough leeway to be effective in carrying out our foreign policy.  We don't expect Congress to undermine our Presidents in this endeavor. We don't expect the most junior and inexperienced Senator to call the shots.  Apparently Mitch McConnell does.

The president represents the entire country.  He or she is supposed to act in the best interest of all of us. Yes, Presidents these days are Republicans or Democrats and they will have policy views and make policy choices that reflect these party affiliations. We may not always agree, but we expect the President to pursue the best interest of the country.

This does not mean that foreign policy politics stops once an election is over.  As citizens we surely have the right to vigorously oppose the policies of a President with whom we strongly disagree.  We may want our representatives in Congress to also vigorously oppose such policies. But we surely don't want our most junior and inexperienced Senators to take direct action with foreign powers or to undermine ongoing negotiations that our government is conducting. And, if the Senate majority leadership felt absolutely compelled to actively oppose and undermine a particular presidential policy, we surely don't want them to delegate this task to the most junior Senator in the Senate. We don't want Congress to follow the lead of a still wet-behind-the-ears blowhard who lacks the breadth of experience to exercise wise and sound judgment in such matters.

We expect better judgment and better leadership than that from the majority party in Congress.

Here is Elias Groll in Foreign Policy Magazine:
The letter represents the second time this Congress has gone further than any of its predecessors in its efforts to kill a deal being negotiated by a sitting American president. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued against a nuclear agreement with Iran during a speech to a joint session of Congress that was organized by House Speaker John Boehner without coordination with the White House. Senate Republicans have made history again, this time by reaching out to Tehran directly to lobby against the deal. 
Norm Ornstein, a longtime observer of the U.S. Congress and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute [a conservative Think Tank], said Monday’s letter was unprecedented in the body’s history. He said the only similar episodes came in 1968, when the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon attempted to scuttle peace talks to end the Vietnam War, and in 1979, when Sen. Jesse Helms dispatched top aides to London to try undermine the talks that eventually turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.  “But that was on such a smaller scale,” Ornstein said. “Really, it’s the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony.”
And Max Fisher points out at VOX that this entire approach by the Republicans threatens to seriously undermine America's ability to conduct foreign policy, not just on this issue of nuclear negotiations with Iran, but on future issues as well:
Even if you agree with Republicans that Obama's Iran talks are a bad idea, the fact that Republicans have gone beyond opposing a deal to overtly undermining US foreign policy should worry you. Republicans are now freelancing their own foreign policy, conducting shadow diplomacy with both Israel and Iran, dividing US foreign policy against itself. 
Who, a foreign leader might reasonably ask, is really in charge in Washington? How can I risk negotiating with the US when any deal we strike might be sabotaged by Congress? How can I make difficult, politically painful concessions to the US if Republicans might end up pulling out the rug from under me? How much can I really trust the US to uphold its word? How safe of a bet is working with the Americans?