By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
Since the Jewish State of Israel was founded just three years after the end of World War II and the near total extermination of European Jewry, it has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. While there have been disagreements in the past, mainly over the creation of a Palestinian State on the West Bank of the Jordan River, nothing in recent memory comes close to the acrimony between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to friends and foes alike. They do not like each other for reasons that are the subject of gossip and speculation in the corridors of power in Washington, foreign capitals, and the cafes that dot the coastline of the small Jewish State. What appears to have begun as a political rift has become a chasm marked by an acidic relationship.
Mr. Obama is not the first president who has had his share of problems with Israeli leaders but somehow the others managed to overcome their differences and work together in an effort to bring peace to this benighted region of the world. Such was the case with Prime Minister Begin and President Carter, as well as President Clinton and Bibi. This is not the case now. While the differences can be attributed to demeanor, style and very different personalities, at the core of the open hostility are antipodal views in a very high stakes game of geopolitics and the inextricable issues of Tel-Aviv continuing to build Jewish settlements on the West Bank where the Palestinians hope to build their homeland. And, as the entire world now knows after Bibi delivered a 45-minute speech before a joint session of Congress, differences on how to deal with Tehran’s atomic and hegemonic ambitions.
From the moment Mr. Obama threw his hat in the ring and announced that he intended to run for president, every aspect of his personality, background, style, views, and demeanor have been the subject of endless analysis. Outside of Israel, this has not been the case with Bibi, who has led Israel through difficult times: the failed Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS, the war with Gaza last summer, the failed talks with the Palestinians, and looming in the background, Iran with its atomic ambitions. He is up for re-election and odds are he will win, helped along by his reception in Washington, not by the State Department or the White House, but by the Republicans.
At home he is loved by many (they call him King Bibi) and disliked by others, but both sides agree that his only priority is the safety of his nation in what he calls “the world’s toughest neighborhood.” He is a man obsessed with national security and despite assurances from the Obama Administration, Bibi is unconvinced. At the end of his speech to Congress, he reminded the world that if need be, Israel would handle Iran on its own. Small wonder Mr. Obama did not watch the speech on TV and 50 Democrats boycotted the speech.
However affable in public, as the world witnessed when he entered the Congressional Chamber, he is a very tough military man and a seasoned politician, a man with a purpose. He is also a master politician, leading a nation of 6.2 million Jews or as the Israelis are fond of saying, 6.2 million prime ministers. He loves to schmooze, or chat, but as it is said in Yiddish, the very big man is sometimes a shtarker, a man with a strong-arm persona. He is a hard-nosed realist and a practitioner of Realpolitik, who has argued over and over again that Israel faces “an existential threat” from Iran, whose Mullahs have promised to remove what they call “the Jewish entity” from the face of the earth.
The speech before Congress was Bibi’s third; the only person to be so honored was his hero, Winston Churchill. House Speaker John Boehner, who invited Bibi to speak, gave him a bust of the United Kingdom’s wartime prime minister. In the 1930s, from the back bench of Parliament, the out-of-power Churchill warned against dealing with Hitler and believed that only timely action would stop his monomaniacal ambitions. Few listened for fear of another world war. At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Britain, Italy and France handed over the Sudentenland to Hitler. In March 1939, Hitler took the rest of the Czech state. To this day, the word appeasement has entered the lexicon of the greatest foreign policy mistakes. For Bibi, the current discussions with Iran are an updated version of appeasement with the naive hope that Iran will change its behavior. For him, the Mullahs are no different than the Nazis and have the same agenda, the destruction of the Jews. He sees Mr. Obama as a misguided idealist who believes that he can work with Tehran, not only on the nuclear issue but giving the green light for its elite troops to rout ISIS.
The fact that his English is flawless is no accident. He is the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu (1910 – 2013), a historian who had several professorships in Philadelphia. The family lived in the Cheltenham Township near Philly from 1956 to 1958 and again from 1963 to 1967. To understand the father—Ben Zion literally means “Son of Zion”—is to understand the son. Ben-Zion was an ardent Zionist whose historical works dealt with the history of the Jewish people, anti-Semitism, and his magnum opus on the Spanish Inquisition, which evicted the Jews from Spain after 1492. His central thesis maintains it was not a matter of religion but race that set into motion the exodus of the Jews from Spain and for him was the start of racial anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Bibi drew many lessons from his father’s work and uncompromising Zionism.
He is the first Israeli prime minister to be born (1949) after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. No different than many prime ministers before him, he cut his teeth in the military—first the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) in the Six Day War in 1967 and later in the Special Forces, or Sayeret Natkal. During the raid on Entebbe, he lost his brother, which marked him for life.
After he made his rounds in Washington and gave his well-publicized address to Congress, the 66-year-old Israeli prime minister boarded his El-Al flight for Tel-Aviv. He immediately was back on the campaign trail, using the address and the invitation as evidence of his standing in the world. But his problems with President Obama aside, it would be a gross error in judgment to conclude there is a major rupture in American-Israeli relations. While he is up for his fourth term, the President is a lame duck with just a year-and-a-half until the end of his eight-year presidency. Bibi will just wait him out and if a deal is cut with Tehran, clearly the Republicans will work to undermine it. As is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “this too will pass;” this dust-up between Washington and the small Jewish State.
Meanwhile, no different than Bill Clinton before him when Bibi was in office, Mr. Obama has to ask: “How is it possible for such a small state to appear so large in world affairs?”
Just ask Bibi, master politician and a real master at political theater.
By Dr. Sander Diamond, professor of history
When al-Assid used poison gas against his people in Syria, President Obama threatened to remove the stockpiles by force. Instead, he opted for diplomacy. al-Assid “promised” to permit the removal of the gas stockpiles from his territory, which most observers believe was unworkable in the middle of a violent civil war. It was here that Washington, Moscow, and Tehran found common ground. The last thing any of them wanted was for poison gas to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, which is freely operating in Syria. The upshot of these back door talks was the opening of a portal for further talks.
This coincided with the end of the presidential term of Iran’s belligerent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians viewed as an embarrassment. He was replaced by Hassan Rouhani, who the West viewed as ‘moderate’ within the context of Iranian life. His international debut came at the United Nations, and rather than a tirade of Holocaust denials, calls for the destruction of Israel, and strident anti-Americanism, his remarks suggested that Tehran may be open to talks with Washington.
From Iran’s vantage point, they saw in Obama a president who may give diplomacy a chance, as well as a slight cooling in Washington’s relationship with Tel-Aviv. From Obama’s point of view, the time had arrived to test the waters with Iran after 34 years of isolation.
In November, Secretary of State Kerry and representatives of our Western allies met with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva. A six-month agreement was cobbled together: in exchange for Iran applying some braking power on the production of fissionable material in its far-flung facilities and re-opening these sites to outside inspectors, some of the most pressing sanctions will be lifted and Tehran will gain access to some of its frozen cash assets.
For those who applauded the agreement, it represented a major diplomatic success which transcends the details. President Obama expressed the hope that diplomacy could help turn the tide in the turbulent Middle East
Elsewhere, the Geneva Accord was greeted with anger and bitterness. The Israelis and Saudis saw the Accord as a concession to Iran that will tilt the balance of power in its favor. Both believe that Obama cannot be trusted and that his actions are not borne out of a lack of experience but a concerted effort to redirect U.S. foreign policy. Many in Obama’s party were also dismayed, as were members of the Republican Party. They were in complete agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, who said that now Iran “is a turn of a screwdriver away” from having WMDs.
For those with long memories, the Geneva Accord could not have been more poorly timed. September 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, which added the word “appeasement” to the lexicon of diplomatic mistakes. For Iran’s most strident detractors, those who call the shots in Tehran are the sons of Hitler who will in time strike Israel and expand their theocratic vision to the entire Middle East. Obama and some in the West see it differently. They are well aware that the Supreme Leader calls the shots, but working with President Rouhani may lead to internal changes inside Iran and it is time to give diplomacy a chance. And testing the waters for six months hardly rises to the level of appeasement.
The Geneva Accord may come to little in six months. If the chatter out of Tehran can be believed, the Supreme Leader is not happy with the direction the new president has taken. And if Israeli intelligence is accurate, Iran will have atomic weapons by spring. Once again, the shifting sands of the Middle East are at work and talk of war is in the air. Obama knows that a massive strike against Iran by either the U.S. or Israel will trigger a major regional war. He believes that diplomacy can arrest a march toward war. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we can only hope he is right.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
The Middle East has long been the epicenter of complex problems that wash like waves into other regions. No different than his predecessors as far back as Truman, President Obama is faced with a complex nexus of interrelated problems and hard choices.
The Arab Spring has brought with it change, much of it unwelcomed in Washington. Under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the future of Egypt is uncertain. An Iran armed with atomic weapons is a dismal prospect. Yemen is in disarray, al-Qaeda doing its usual destructiveness. The prospect of an independent Palestinian State on the West Bank has moved to the back burner. The Sinai has fallen into total disorder. Hamas and Hezbollah will surely take advantage of the region’s problems, each being fed by Iran.
And then there is Syria, which presents an unimaginable host of problems that can destabilize the region even further. Much of Syria is in ruins, its ancient cities along the coastline demolished by the Bashar al-Assad regime’s air force, tanks, and fighting between paramilitary units and the regular army. Syria is sinking as a nation and the ability of its leader to rule over what was Syria two years ago is limited. But al-Assad still has a monopoly of power. He is being resupplied by the Russians and the Iranians, using Hezbollah fighters to put down the Opposition in the most brutal way.
Barring a bolt out of the blue, Syria is shaping up as the greatest foreign policy challenge of Obama’s presidency. One suspects his humanitarian instincts push him in one direction, his geo-political instincts in another.
After two wars in the region, he is mindful of the perils of getting involved in a civil war. In the words of The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, “If you torch it, you own it.” After a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is the last thing Obama wants. However, if the U.S. continues to stand on the sidelines and wait to see how the crisis unfolds, Obama will be accused of being heartless or too tepid.
Like many, Obama would like to see al-Assad pack and leave, but if he falls, the gates of hell will open in a region not known for moderation. There is the fear that once al-Assad is gone, Syria could be dismembered, further collapsing into chaos with Hezbollah moving into its western and southern sections, which Israel would not tolerate. Given the prospect of Syria falling into total chaos, dismembered, or worse, one has to question if some of Obama’s advisers want al-Assad to leave anytime soon.
Obama may be taking a leaf out of the Israeli handbook on the region: better the devil you know that the one you do not. If al-Assad emerges relatively intact and manages to reassert control, it will take years to rebuild a broken Syria. From a humanitarian point of view, this is hard to swallow. But it just may be a very hard reality, a bitter pill. As one Israeli said, the choice is between plague and cholera, both horrific but at least we know al-Assad, so-to-speak.
Letting the situation play itself out, standing on the sidelines may be the best choice, however distasteful. But al-Assad has to be put on notice: opening your arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and committing genocide on an unimaginable scale would be a game changer.
President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera was one of more than 300 college CEOs to sign an open letter to President Obama and other policy leaders calling for tougher gun control laws and declaring their opposition to laws that would allow guns on campus.
The campaign was started by presidents Lawrence M. Schall of Oglethorpe University and Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College, both located in Atlanta, Ga. Presidents from mostly private, non-profit colleges have signed the letter, which was written in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and 6 adults.
Since the on-campus shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, several states have sought to allow guns on campus even in opposition from college officials and faculty. After the Newtown massacre, some lawmakers called for teachers to have access to firearms in their classrooms.
But Díaz-Herrera and the other College Presidents for Gun Safety are demanding a crackdown on access to guns.
“Just 10 days after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., gun violence claimed the lives of two first responders here in our own backyard in Webster—not far from our campus,” said Dr. Díaz-Herrera. “Clearly, something has to be done, as our letter states, ‘to ensure that current and future generations may live and learn in a country free from the threat of gun violence.’”
Here is a segment of the letter:
“We are college and university presidents. We are parents. We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We urge both our President and Congress to take action on gun control now. As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership. But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. We oppose such laws. We fully understand that reasonable gun safety legislation will not prevent every future murder. Identification and treatment of the mental health issues that lie beneath so many of the mass murders to which we increasingly bear witness must also be addressed.
“As educators and parents, we come together to ask our elected representatives to act collectively on behalf of our children by enacting rational gun safety measures, including:
• ensuring the safety of our communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on our campuses and in our classrooms;
• ending the gun show loophole, which allows for the purchase of guns from unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check;
• reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines; and
• requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks, access prevention laws, and regulations to identify, prevent and correct manufacturing defects.
“The time has long since passed for silence and inaction on the issue of reasonable and rational gun safety legislation. We hereby request that our nation’s policy leaders take thoughtful and urgent action to ensure that current and future generations may live and learn in a country free from the threat of gun violence.”