Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 25, 2015

Pressuring Israel

By David K. Shipler

            “If the United States decided it wanted to stand by the Palestinian people, we’d have our state in forty-eight hours,” Muhammad Arrar told me several months ago. He was a sinewy man in his mid-forties, a council member in Jalazoun, the West Bank refugee camp. “Israel is America’s fifty-first state,” he continued, in a standard line you hear from Palestinians. Then he added a plea: “In America in the 1700s, a majority of Americans stood up with their weapons and fought, and they raised their rights of liberty.”
This refrain was on the lips of virtually every Palestinian I encountered in the camps, in schools, in government offices; it was a naïve caricature of Israel as a kind of vassal state that could quickly be brought to heel by a flick of the superpower’s wrist. I tried to explain the limits of Washington’s power. Nobody accepted my brilliant analysis. I could see, through their veneer of courtesy, that they thought I was the one being naïve—or disingenuous.
But the relationship is complicated and contradictory, and its core—the dollars and hardware that bolster Israel’s military security—remains undamaged by the recent tiff between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Largely overlooked in the reporting on Monday’s speech by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough—whose criticisms of Netanyahu were given front-page coverage—was his affirmation of the nuts-and-bolts commitment, his impressive listing of the muscular, technologically advanced weaponry already in the pipeline. He pledged unflagging support, while criticizing Republicans for holding the defense budget, which includes aid to Israel, at 2006 levels.
“For Israel alone,” McDonough said in his address to the liberal Jewish lobbying group J Street, “we’ve requested more than $3 billion in foreign military financing and more than $100 million to improve Israel’s capability to defend against ballistic and cruise missile threats. And we’ve asked for an additional $55 million for Iron Dome,” the anti-missile system that was so effective against Hamas rockets from Gaza last summer. At Israel’s request during the seven-week war last July, the United States approved an extra $225 million worth of Iron Dome missiles and batteries, McDonough noted.
He said nothing about the severe international criticisms of Israel for using air strikes, naval bombardment, and ground artillery against densely populated areas of Gaza; he neither defended nor condemned Israel for the way it had conducted the war. But he did point out that “next year, when we deliver the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Israel will be the only country in the Middle East with a fifth-generation aircraft. In other words, we will continue to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge. As the president has said so many times, we have Israel’s back.”
The J Street audience applauded these promises politely. But the 3,000 Americans who had gathered to condemn Netanyahu’s turn away from a two-state solution were much more enthusiastic about McDonough’s tough lines advocating an end to the occupation. When he asserted that Israel’s security would be more certain if Palestinians had a state of their own, practically everyone, many of them college students, jumped to their feet, cheering.
What is to be made of this? J Street firmly opposes cuts in military aid, even as it urges the U.S. to press Israel for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. And there is no place in the mainstream American political spectrum for the idea of leaving Israel less well defended, especially in an era of ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the like, not to mention Iran. As cumbersome as F-35s will be against non-state actors in amorphous movements, voting to keep fitting Israel with high-tech weapons never hurt a member of Congress. No political penalty is exacted for such support. It is denying aid that would carry a price. My guess is that if you polled the 3,000 liberal Jews who rose to their feet to applaud a Palestinian state, you wouldn’t find more than a handful—if that—who favored cutting Israel’s military assistance. The position extends across much of the spectrum, not only to conservative Jews but also to evangelical Christians who regard Israel’s existence as a manifestation of biblical prophecy.
So, what leverage does the U.S. have that it’s willing to use? And how effective would it be? The answers are: not much, and not very.
Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid of any country since World War II, over $125 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nearly all of it now takes the form of military aid, which makes up about a quarter of Israel’s defense budget. Significant economic assistance was tapered off as Israel’s economy boomed. Large Economic Support Fund grants, which began in 1971, ended in 2008.
It might have been possible for the U.S. to tie economic assistance to a halt in building Jewish settlements in the West Bank (and, earlier, the Gaza Strip). Every president, Republican and Democratic, considered the settlements illegal under international law, and an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. If those administrations had put their money where their mouths were, if Israel had been told that for every dollar it spent on settlements, it would receive a dollar or two or three less in economic aid, the projects might have been curtailed.
That is because Israel’s security concerns can be seen as a series of concentric circles, going from a center of risk that brooks no compromise, outward through layers of options and choices less and less vital to safety and survival. As vigorously as some Israeli officials saw West Bank settlements as a return to ancient biblical lands, or as a hold on territory vital to security, the building policy stood in an outer circle of options that might have been traded for economic aid.
It’s now too late for that. Only minor tools are left to the United States. An irritated administration in Washington might lower its diplomatic shield and allow a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting a Palestinian state—a symbolic step. But the real lever, military aid, appears too crucial to pull. The president could only tinker with some of the variables of assistance that are not mandated by statute. He could adjust the level of technology provided and the timing of new weapons systems offered. And if Congress agreed—currently out of the question—some of Israel’s unique privileges could be cut back. Unlike any other country, Israel by law gets its entire year’s assistance in a lump sum within the fiscal year’s first month. Alone among recipients, Israel is allowed to use over one-quarter of the aid to buy weapons from its own manufacturers rather than from the U.S., a policy that has promoted the development of Israeli defense industries. Of course it’s not all a giveaway; the U.S. has also benefited from joint research leading to technological advances.
And there’s the rub. In this difficult friendship, Israel and the U.S. don’t just tolerate each other. They need each other. They share vital intelligence, they improve the sophistication of weapons systems. The U.S. pre-positions arms in Israel for American use if needed in the region: missiles, artillery shells, and armored vehicles. At the same time, ironically, Washington can’t enlist Israel’s preeminent armed forces in combat without alienating Arab countries and jeopardizing fragile military coalitions. In 1990, the U.S. pleaded with Israel to stay out of the first Gulf War, even as Iraqi missiles hit Israeli territory. Today, Washington hasn’t dared call on the Israeli Air Force to help in Iraq and Syria.

It’s not pressure but comfort that Israel needs, for it will not compromise on granting Palestinians statehood until enough Israelis feel safe enough to do so. That will take more than the forty-eight hours that Muhammad Arrar imagines.

March 17, 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Palestinian State

By David K. Shipler  

No matter who forms the next Israeli government, whether Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog, a bet on statehood for the Palestinians is about as good as money in a Ukrainian bond. Netanyahu has said, not on his watch, and Herzog has not said. Palestinian leaders, especially in Hamas, have done nothing to make Israelis feel secure enough to take the gamble. Conditions can always change, of course, but for the foreseeable future, a two-state solution looks dead.
The idea didn’t last long. Thirty years ago, hardly any Israeli Jews supported the creation of a Palestinian state. The only Jewish-led political party to do so was the tiny Communist Party, which garnered only a handful of seats in the Knesset and never joined a governing coalition. Even liberal leaders of Peace Now, the movement that campaigned against Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would not come out for a Palestinian state back then, for fear that they would be discredited among the rest of the Jewish population.
A sea change in Israelis’ attitudes accompanied the 1993 Oslo Accords, which won the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and allowed Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders to come in from exile to set up an interim administration in a patchwork of areas in the West Bank and Gaza. Serious negotiations were launched with the ultimate goal of two states living peacefully side by side.
Public opinion polls showed a sudden jump in the percentage of Israeli Jews supporting Palestinian statehood: to 46.9 percent in 1994, fifteen months after the accords were signed.

March 10, 2015

Iran: Threatening and Threatened

By David K. Shipler


            Why would hardliners in Iran want to forego the prospect of becoming a nuclear power, especially when faced with hardliners in the United States and Israel, both in possession of nuclear weapons? The question is raised again by the condescending little lecture on the American constitutional system, delivered by 47 Republican Senators in the form of an open letter. Without Congress or the next president’s approval, they told Iranian leaders, no agreement by President Obama would by honored by Washington.
            Undermining the full faith and credit of the United States has now been extended from financial matters to foreign policy. Republicans, who lament our supposedly weak president, work relentlessly to weaken him. (Don’t think Vladimir Putin fails to take notice.) And while I admit to knowing no more about Iran than any informed citizen—never having been there and having read too little about that complicated country—I really wonder why policymakers there would want to take the huge gamble of abandoning their weapons program when their apparent enemy the United States cannot be counted on to uphold its side of a bargain.
            Yes, Iran would like to get out from under the crippling sanctions, which have grown internationally and strengthened during Obama’s tenure. They deny Iran markets for its oil and access to international financial institutions. Yes, Iran’s theocracy is tempered by cross-currents of moderation among those partial to opening the country to Europe, the United States, and the rest of the industrialized world. And yes, Iran has refrained from actually going nuclear, notes Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia, despite its reported ability to do so for the last decade. “The entire U.S. intelligence community and most of our allies—apparently including Israel—have concluded with high confidence that Iran has not made a decision to build a bomb,” Sick writes.
            Why not?

March 5, 2015

Policing in Blue and Black

By David K. Shipler


            The most racist institutions in America are police departments. Decades after the military launched sophisticated efforts to train and educate in cross-racial interaction, long after colleges and corporations saw their interests served by diversifying and managing relations within their communities, many police forces remain impervious to revisions of attitude that followed the civil rights movement. Especially in small cities and counties, but even in pockets of larger urban departments, racial stereotyping governs many officers’ assumptions and behavior.
So the Justice Department’s devastating report on the department in Ferguson, Missouri, comes as no surprise to anyone who has researched the problem or, more vividly, has lived it.    African-Americans who encounter white cops—and sometimes black cops—have been telling the rest of us horror stories steadily, in between the egregious beatings and killings that periodically prompt us to rediscover the affliction, conduct investigations, promise reform, and then move on.
If the Justice Department wants to make real change this time, it would take a leaf from the Defense Department’s book. At Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, the Pentagon runs a sophisticated set of trainings for officers and enlisted personnel at the Defense EqualOpportunity Management Institute (DEOMI), which also conducts surveys into the climate between races and genders in military units. Nobody would pretend that DEOMI has erased racial tensions in the services—or sexual assault, obviously—but it has helped open the lines of confrontation with those issues, and it has populated the ranks with people who get it.

February 27, 2015

Crossing Israel's Demographic Divide

By David K. Shipler


            On some unknown day in some recent year, according to the most reliable estimates, the demographic scales were tipped by the death of an Israeli Jew or the birth of an Arab baby. The Jews lost their majority in the ancient, weary land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as the number of Arabs reached parity with the Jewish population, at 6.1 or 6.2 million each, depending on who’s counting. Every Israeli knew that the day was coming, but few noticed its stealthy arrival under the camouflage of their twilight war with the Palestinian Arabs, which has blurred visions of the future.
            Now what is to be done? That is the profound question for Israel, one that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems ill-equipped to address, despite his many years in office. It is the question that will lurk behind his speech to Congress on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, because the answer—whatever it may be—is equally critical to Israel’s survival as a democratic sanctuary.
            Will Israeli Jews, as a minority going forward, continue to dominate the Arab majority? Will the current hybrid of military occupation and hostile disengagement continue endlessly, or will an exit be found? Will that exit create two states side by side, and will they exist in accommodation or ongoing violence? Or will the “solution” be one state? And if so, what would that state look like with an Arab majority and a Jewish minority? Would all Arabs, including those from the West Bank and Gaza, enjoy equal citizenship in a full democracy, as Arab citizens of Israel technically do now? If so, they will outvote the Jews, and the character of Israel as a Jewish state will be lost. If not—if Arabs are consigned to a lesser status of limited rights—will the uneven relationship justify the hateful a-word, “apartheid,” already thrown about loosely by anti-Israel zealots?

February 18, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

By David K. Shipler 

            The phone at Ed Walsh’s Jerusalem home rang during a small dinner party one evening in the early 1980s. He was the Washington Post’s bureau chief, but the call was for me. In those pre-cell phone days, I made it a practice to let the New York Times Foreign Desk know where I’d be and how to reach me.
            Ed said I could take it in his office, which was near enough to the dining room that the guests could hear my end of the conversation. An editor in New York wanted me to expand on a short piece I’d done on a small and insignificant event. They were considering it for the front page.
            No, I said, please don’t. It will send readers the wrong message. It will inflate the importance of a minor incident. I no longer remember exactly what it was: perhaps a cabinet minister threatening to resign from the governing coalition, which always got New York excited although it was the Israelis’ routine method of conducting politics. Or, it might have been the time when a couple of Palestinian would-be terrorists crossed the well-patrolled border from Jordan into the West Bank, prompting a manhunt by the Israeli army, which caught them before they launched an attack. In any case, it needed to be reported but certainly didn’t rise to the level of major news, and I managed to talk the editor down from the height of what would have been embarrassing hype.
            I returned to the table to see quizzical looks from a couple who were not journalists. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was for Ed, and we could hear him in the same conversation, working to dissuade his editor in Washington from overplaying the story. When he came back, one of the non-journalists laughed in amazement: I thought you guys were always pushing to get ONTO page one, and here you were trying to stay OFF!

January 9, 2014

On Obama: The Virtue of Doubt

By David K. Shipler

            President Obama deserves praise, not criticism, for the views on Afghanistan attributed to him in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir. In the book’s most quoted lines, Gates writes of a meeting in March 2011, “As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Gates doesn’t mean this as a compliment, but if it’s accurate, then two cheers for Obama. It’s just too bad his actions didn’t coincide with his doubts—a familiar pattern.
Let’s take Gates’s observations one at a time:
Obama was obviously right to distrust his commander, David Petraeus, who was felled the following year as CIA director by an extra-marital affair, and whose counterinsurgency brilliance was always overstated. Petraeus was a charming man of poor judgment.
Obama was justified about Karzai, who has proved to be a puppet without strings—a self-absorbed enabler of corruption who cannot govern his country or practice sensible diplomacy with his chief benefactor.
Obama was correct in not believing in “his own strategy” of beefing up troops in Afghanistan, articulated during his 2008 campaign.

December 30, 2013

The Thirteen Lessons of 2013

By David K. Shipler

            1. Every solution creates at least one new problem. (Obamacare.)

            2. The natural alternative to autocracy is more autocracy, not democracy. (Egypt.)

            3. The initial result of revolution is anarchy. (Syria, Libya.)

4. Radical ideas can survive the ballot box. (Tea Party.)

5. The threat of compromise is less satisfying than the threat of warfare. (Iran, Israel.)

6. Racism is animated, not eliminated, by electing a black president. (Obama.)

November 21, 2013

The Immortality of Presidents

By David K. Shipler

            History is supposed to have an unerring eye for ultimate accuracy. From the distance of time, historians are expected to act as the final judges, to cut ruthlessly through to the truth. It is fitting to reflect on this now, during a week of renewed mourning for President John F. Kennedy, who was felled in Dallas by an assassin half a century ago.
He and Jackie were dazzling. They tapped Americans’ vestigial yearning for royalty, the excitement of stylish celebrity, and the deep need for optimistic commitment to high purpose. Yet as popular as Kennedy was—his Gallup approval rating averaged 70.1 percent—he was never so widely admired as he became after his death. Indeed, Gallup’s graph of his rating shows a gradual, yearlong downward slope to 58 percent the week before he was killed—still higher than President Obama has enjoyed since the first six months of taking office, but a significant decline nonetheless. It followed a sharp bump up 13 months earlier after JFK faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis. (Presidents’ percentages typically rise after a national security crisis, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s did after Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush’s following 9/11.)
One is tempted to wonder what course the line on that graph would have taken had JFK lived and had been able to win a second term.

November 1, 2013

Food Stamps: The Chain Reaction

By David K. Shipler

            Let’s give the Republicans in Congress the benefit of the doubt. (Yes, I hear the groans, boos, and catcalls.) But let’s be charitable for a moment and assume that they had no idea, when they allowed severe cuts in food stamps to take effect today, that they were damaging the brain development, lifelong cognitive capacity, and therefore the future earning power of untold numbers of American children. If they had known, surely the legislators would not have done what they did.
            That may sound like an overstatement until you look at the science or, more broadly, the interaction between economics and biology.
            The chain reaction between early malnutrition and various intellectual and behavioral deficits has been well established by neuroscience. Extensive documentation, in readable form, can be found in a thick digest of studies published in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences, with the provocative title From Neurons to Neighborhoods. The research has been updated since in scholarly papers and conferences.
            Inadequate iron and other nutrients during the critical periods of brain development—especially the second and third trimesters of pregnancy and the first two years after birth—damages the complex, overlapping processes of growth.