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Israel, the Republicans and Obama’s PR Strategy

Monday, February 25th, 2013

A correspondent of mine expressed some surprise when it was announced yesterday that the new secretary of state, John Kerry, would not be visiting Israel prior to the visit next month of President Obama.

What this means to foreign-service hands is that there won’t be a ministerial-level sit-down in advance of the president’s trip.  The army of foreign-service specialists who negotiate for the U.S. and Israel won’t come up with serious negotiating points (or at least statements of common objectives) on topics like talks with the Palestinian Arabs, or the Iranian nuclear threat.  The president’s itinerary and official events will no doubt be planned thoroughly, but there is a big hole where the normal process of policy preparation would be.

The prospect of Obama’s visit producing a tangible Middle East-policy outcome is thus nil.  Appearances now suggest that the trip will basically be

an extended photo op.  The president will have photo ops with the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank as well.  One of the bigger photo ops will be the award to Obama of Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction, by President Shimon Peres.

Appearances as to the kind of trip we can look forward to are probably not deceiving, but they must be understood in the context of Obama’s political style.  This is a president who believes that a photo purporting to show him shooting skeet at Camp David will establish his bona fides as a supporter of the Second Amendment – enough so, at any rate, to neutralize political opposition to the increased gun restrictions he favors.  For Obama, photo ops are the execution of policy: they build a narrative that gives him leverage by undermining his opponent’s position.

CERTAINLY, HE has approached the federal budget stand-off this way.  It makes an excellent case study.  As numerous pundits have pointed out in the last week, the “sequester” of funds, in the absence of a budget agreement, was Obama’s idea.  He has played the sequester to the media on both sides, however, attributing it entirely to the Republicans in Congress when it suits him to.

In February 2013, he is decrying a set of exaggerated effects which he claims will result from the sequester kicking in on 1 March.  (As Jennifer Rubin notes, even the New York Times detected exaggeration in Obama’s dire predictions.)

But in the thick of the negotiations that produced the sequester threat, back in 2011, Obama threatened to veto any attempt to avert the sequesterwithout a full budget deal.  The same consequences have always been in prospect; what has changed is the position Obama proclaims to the public.

Writers at Politico – hardly a hotbed of right-wing perspective – quote administration officials identifying Obama’s sequester strategy as “shame.”

Certain that the political winds are in their favor, [the White House is]forgoing serious negotiations for a high-risk public offensive, banking almost entirely on the president’s ability to persuade. They believe that the GOP will be scared of taking the blame from an angry public — and the White House says this is just the kind of thing that gave them the victory they claimed in the fiscal cliff fight and the most recent standoff over the debt limit.

The aim is to force Republicans to submit to new revenue as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion in potential cuts — and the only way to get there, senior administration officials said, is by making the GOP position indefensible.

Just so we’re clear:  this is community-organizing politics, in a nutshell.  Hype an exaggerated problem or threat – even a counter-factual one – with a lot of noise and pressure; stir people up about it; make yourself and your agenda the hero fighting for the people; and pin the blame for it all on the target you want to squeeze concessions from:  in this case, Republicans.  (This site has a brief summary of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” the methods community organizers favor to achieve their goals.  Rules 4, 9, and 10 are particularly applicable here.)

Obama has taken off the mask of moderation since his reelection – something even his supporters have reservations about.  This is important context for his visit to Israel in March.  If he foregoes serious negotiations in Israel for a photo-op narrative-building opportunity, what are his objectives?

OBAMA WILL presumably seek to be seen in a posture friendly and solicitous toward both Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.  I think we can expect very positive-sounding but vague comments about Israel and Israeli security, which, along with photos at the Western Wall (with kippa), a visit to an Iron Dome battery, and photos of himself receiving his medal from Peres, will be intended to evoke powerfully the sense of Obama as a friend to Israel.

Similar care will be taken to select photo-op venues with the Palestinian Arabs.  But nothing material will be resolved; Team Obama will simply hope to pocket good feeling about his attitude toward both parties.  As with his Magical Sequester Tour in the U.S., he will be looking for imagery and narrative building to establish his bona fides on Israeli security as against his political opponents’ – most particularly with an audience of the U.S. media and American Jews.

In community-organizing terms, Obama doesn’t have to convince Netanyahu himself, or other Israelis, or regional-policy experts; he certainly doesn’t have to make a parsable case for a posture that is trustworthy or has a rational basis.  What he has to do is neutralize or “make indefensible” the position of his opponents – from House Republicans to Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel – regarding both Israel and Obama’s stance on Israel.  He has to outflank them on the battlefield of perception, looking more solicitous of Israeli security than Netanyahu, and better disposed toward Israel than either AIPAC or Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.

If, as Rush Limbaugh suggests, Obama’s main political objective today is winning the House in 2014, then establishing imputed bona fides for him on Israel is certainly important to the races in some key districts.  ThatObama’s campaign organization remains in political-action mode, in spite of the constitutional limit on his own reelection, is clear.  Obama won’t be leaving the 2014 election for the Democratic Party to handle.

But there is also the foreign-policy aspect of any “perception benefits” Obama hopes to garner from a photo-op tour of Israel.  Down the road, Obama may want Israel to pay a high price in security concessions for any hugs administered in March 2013.

That, I think, is where the limits of community organizing will be reached.  Netanyahu will remain undeceived as to the wisdom or utility of anything Obama may insist on (such as bilateral talks with Iran), regardless of personalities or media hype.  So, of course, will supporters of Israel in the United States – but in this case, unlike the case of the sequester, the decisive factor will not and cannot be the perceived “indefensibility” of the position held by Obama’s political opponents at home.  Not only does Israel have a vote on whatever policies are to prevail, but the other regional actors have votes too.

None of those actors – the Palestinian Arabs, the Arab nations, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkey, Iran, the E.U. – is locked in a closed-loop system with Obama, as his political opponents in the U.S. are.  The foreign actors have alternatives to Obama’s suggested roles for them, and they are starting to pursue those alternatives.  From outside the closed loop of American politics, most of them see clearly that a perception advantage for Obama inside the U.S. isn’t the same thing as Obama being reliable or competent, or having a policy idea that’s good for them.  They will act according to their interests, in the end, rather than hitching their wagon to Obama’s star – or, indeed, rather than suffering political losses if Team Obama can make their American supporters look bad.

THE COMMUNITY organizer’s horizon is always limited.  So is his reach.  In a way we have not seen since the 1930s, the rest of the world stands outside America’s internal struggle today, and plenty of foreign observers have Obama’s number.  This will have the effect of making the world less stable, unfortunately, while reducing America’s influence over its direction.

It may also increase the poignancy of the Israeli government’s codename for the Obama visit – or perhaps it increases the geopolitical insight behind it.  According to media reports, Israeli officials have dubbed the visit “Brit Amim,” which is being translated from the Hebrew as “alliance between nations.”  The English expression being used officially by Israel is “Unbreakable Alliance.”

Christian groups on the watch for the eschaton immediately pointed out the similarity of “brit amim” to a passage in the prophetic book of Daniel that refers to “brit rabbim,” or a future covenant of Israel with all peoples.  (The verse in question is Daniel 9:27.)  “Brit” recurs throughout the Old Testament to signify “covenant,” in the sense of a covenant between God and His people.

While I do not think the Israeli government meant to invoke Christian prophetic expectations in choosing this codename, it is reasonable to suppose that Bibi Netanyahu, who titled his 1993 book on Israel A Place Among the Nations, is well aware of the biblical connotations of the formulation Brit Amim.  The UN’s recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 was, in a sense, a covenant of the nations with the Jewish people, and Brit Amim as a codename for the visit of Barack Obama in 2013 may imply, at the very least, a dual meaning: not just affirming the alliance between Israel and the U.S., but affirming as well that the covenant of the nations with Israel extends beyond any one president or nation.

Community organizing is very narrowly focused and self-referential.  Having no positive goals, it comes with an inherent expiration date.  It may or may not bring America down; it will not keep history from happening.

Originally published at the Optimistic Conservative under the title, Israel and Obama: Community Organizing the Planet?

Memo to the President: Compromise on the Budget

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

We are about two weeks away from something called the sequester. This is a law passed by congress to ensure that congress balance the federal budget by threatening major indiscriminate deep cuts on all government programs across the board – including defense.

Balancing the budget means that no more money is spent by the government than it takes in. If there is no action by congress along those lines the government can ‘borrow’ the money by raising the debt ceiling or by selling bonds to foreign governments like China. Meaning it can just print more money and ‘owe itself or China’ the money to pay be paid back with future revenue increasing our debt exponentially as we continue to have to ‘borrow’ to meet government expenditures because of an unbalanced budget.
Although I hope I’m wrong – it seems like the sequester will happen. That is not a good thing. There is no way of telling what the exact impact will be.  But I don’t think it is rocket science to realize that when there are automatic deep budget cuts across the board to all government programs – including the military – not to mention entitlement programs like welfare, workfare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and farm subsidies;  …that people will suffer.
No doubt food prices will increase; joblessness will increase; government revenue from taxes will decrease and taxes will increase to try and offset that; there will be less money for anyone to spend; consumer demand will decrease; production will decrease; more jobs will be lost; the market will crash; retirement funds heavily invested in the market will no longer be able to help support the elderly; social security will decrease; Medicare and Medicaid payments will decrease, the ill will suffer; our national defense will suffer; and who knows what else… In short it’s not a pretty picture, no matter how you paint it.
The fault lies with both the executive and legislative branches of government. Neither wants to budge from their ideological positions. Congressional Republicans will never agree to any deal that does not include a reduction in government spending. The President refuses any further cuts the budget which will surely increase the deficit. He feels obligated to protect entitlements to the wealthy and the poor.
The problem with his position is that if the government keeps printing money, it will become devalued. In a world based economy this will surely cause unprecedented inflation. We may end up with a simultaneous depression and inflation… who knows.
The President has thrown down the gauntlet. He says that if congress doesn’t act blame for the sequester will be their fault.
Perhaps. But history will not be kind to the President. If the worst happens, it will be under his watch. History will record that whatever catastrophic economic event happens under his watch will be his fault. And he may go down as the worst President in American history, despite his good intentions.
It is true that the public blames both sides but see the Republicans having greater fault I this. I see it as two stubborn sides that consider their own liberal or conservative principles having greater value that saving the country from financial ruin. I really don’t know what they are thinking.
But whatever the truth is about whose fault it is, history will record that the Obama Presidency will be the worst failure since that of Herbert Hoover.
Somebody better blink in this game of chicken.  I don’t care who it is at this point. But if the President wants to have any kind of decent legacy he ought to make sure someone does.
Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

US Budget Cuts May Axe Funds for Israel’s Anti-Missile Systems

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Pro-Israel sources report that the axe on the US budget may eliminate $479 million for joint US-Israel anti-missile programs, namely David’s Sling and Arrow systems, in addition to another $300 cut in military aid.

The slash in aid would come on the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, which has been dubbed “Operation Unbreakable Alliance.”

Senior Israel officials are aware of the possible reductions and are trying to figure out to deal with them, according to Israel’s Globes business newspaper. Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s recent visit to Washington may have been, in part, an attempt to convince Congressmen to dull the axe on funding for the anti-missile programs.

The threat of Israel’s Middle East’s neighbors plunging into anarchy and leaving Al Qaeda and Hizbullah in charge underscores the government’s concerns.

The United States currently gives $3.15 billion in aid, although a large part of it actually is returned to American defense firms that Israel is required to use for much of the equipment and technology.

Congress and the White House have another week until the March 1 deadline, when either the federal deficit is reduced or automatic budget cuts come into effect, which could totally upset financial markets and America’s credit rating.

Republicans control the House of Representatives and are using their power to try to crack the whip on government spending, both at home and abroad.

“So far as is known at this stage, the fate of the aid for missiles is not the fate of the current military aid. We have to hope that won’t be the final situation,” a pro-Israel source told Globes.

Aid to Israel is bound to be reduced in light of massive cuts in domestic spending that, according to The New York Times, will put 14,000 teachers and 4,000 air traffic controllers out of work.

The March 1 deadline also is well before Obama flies to Israel, and he may have to depend only on his oratorical skills to convince Jews in Israel and in the United States of the “unbreakable alliance.”

Where’s the Money?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Now that the new Knesset has had its festive swearing-in ceremony, it is going to have to start finding ways to reduce the deficit.  One option is to tax the public.  A second is to reduce services.  But there is another way: track down the big money that goes into inflated salaries and needless positions in the public sector.

The problem there results from the existence of large and still growing groups that developed over the course of decades courtesy of the workers’ committees.  The basic right to strike, which developed in the mines of England as a means of ensuring workers received enough to get by, developed into a powerful interest group’s means of enriching itself at the public’s expense.

The examples are well known: port workers who received huge monthly salaries, by Israeli standards, of 30,000–60,000 NIS; workers at the Israel Electric Company who receive similar salaries and free electricity; employees of Israel Aerospace Industries who joined the Likud en masse and thus guarantee their chairman a place in the Knesset as a kingmaker in the ruling party, where he works to get them salaries and working conditions that are nonexistent in other industries.

These are only the most egregious examples.  And yet, truth be told, the real big money is poured into the pensions of the defense establishment.  Did you know that each year the State of Israel spends about six billion NIS of the national budget on the pensions of career servicemen?  The state already has budgeted 260 billion NIS for career soldiers’ pensions in future years.

Why should a lieutenant colonel who retires at age 45 receive 20,000 NIS every month for the rest of his life?  Very few such people were actually combat troops.  A major or non-commissioned officer who served in an office at the Kirya or in a warehouse at Tel Nof and completed an academic degree in parallel can simply go home at age 45 and receive 9,000 NIS every month until age 120.  Just this past year, the powerful IDF Veterans Association, which represents the interests of former career soldiers, made off with the creation of additional state-funded positions as a gift to future members.

Let’s go back to the new Knesset.  Every month, the state will pay every Knesset member 38,000 NIS.  Each of them will receive a 4,250 NIS budget for clothing per year.  Why?  A Knesset member must look his best.  Of course.  Each member also will be paid 27,500 NIS toward a cell phone every year.  I, for one, pay 1,000 NIS.

Two of the new Knesset members, Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, were among the leaders of the 2011 social protests in which they chanted, “the people want social justice.”  Indeed.  The gap between them and regular people is intolerable.

Take the example of Miri.  Miri is a much admired teacher who lives in the south Mount Hevron area and travels to Gush Etzion every day to teach in a top school there.  She receives 5,000 NIS per month from the Ministry of Education, much of which goes to paying for fuel to get her to work.  Her neighbor, also a teacher, splits costs with her, and they take the shortest route possible, through Arab villages, in order to reach and teach the Jewish children in their classes.  Why should they receive any less than a non-commissioned officer working at the Kirya or in a command headquarters?  What about the nurses who are overburdened with stress and exhaustion until age 65, laboring away in a collapsing health system lacking staff and money?  Why is there no money to employ more nurses and reduce the load?

The public needs to demand that the members of the Knesset look in the mirror and start off by cutting their own salaries by at least 40 percent, with additional, symbolic cuts, such as doing away with taxpayer-funded boarding at Jerusalem hotels.  Their Knesset offices are outfitted with showers and comfortable sofas—they can sleep at the Knesset once or twice a week.  Knesset Members Yitzchak Berman and Michael Ben Ari used to do that.

Once that is done, they will be able to move on to the next stage: putting an end to the injustices inherent in the public pay scale.  Massive reorganization is needed.  The way to do that is to raise public awareness; stand up to the powerful workers’ committees with the help of patience and public backing; and even take some unpopular steps, such as issuing corrective legislation to end the Labor Courts’ automatic support for strikes.

Can the Knesset members do it?  Is it possible?  Once they’ve made cuts to themselves, it will be much easier to cut away at the fat that is choking the budget.

Originally published in Mekor Rishon. Translated from Hebrew by David Greenberg.

Sderot Mayor Goes on Hunger Strike

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Sderot Mayor David Buskila has announced that he will not eat again until the government increased the budget of the beleaguered town, well-known landing site of many of Hamas’s rockets launched on civilians from sites in Gaza.

Busika set up a protest tent in front of the Prime Minister’s residence on Wednesday, demonstrating on behalf of his town’s 20,000 residents.

Buskila accused the government of failing to provide more support for Sderot’s recovery, and said the government has come through with just 10 percent of the funding it promised to the municipality.

Sderot municipal employees went on strike on Sunday, rallying in front of the Prime Minister’s office, even before 80 rockets rained down on the region.

On Monday, US President Barack Obama said during a televised debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney that his visit to Sderot in 2007 had moved him to fund the Iron Dome anti-missile battery system.

The Interior Ministry has said it provided funding to Sderot, and that it is up to officials there to put it to good use.

January Elections Budget Approved in Israel

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

The Central Elections Commission approved a budget for the upcoming elections on Sunday.

The commission chairman’s salary, drivers, security personnel, polling station ushers, vote counters and security guards will cost a total of NIS 246,781,000, an increase of over 40 million shekels from the previous election budget.

Sandwiches for volunteers who will man the poll centers will cost NIS 1,320,000 on election day, according to a report by Maariv.

Netanyahu Dissolves the Knesset, Announces Early Elections

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to dissolve the Knesset and declare early elections, which are expected to take place early next year.

In his announcement, at 8 PM Israel time (2 PM Easter), Netanyahu noted the stability of his government, which is expected to complete its appointed four-year term—a rare feat in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu pointed out that this stability enabled his government to enhance both the country’s security and economy. “There is only one way to preserve these gains,” he added. “We must continue to carry out a responsible policy.”

“I have concluded that at this time we cannot pass a responsible budget,” Netanyahu told the nation. “It is my duty as Prime Minister to put the national interest above all else, so I decided that the wellbeing of the State of Israel requires elections now – and as quickly as possible.” He added that Israel would be better off with a short election campaign, which would minimize the damage to its economy.”

The political class in Israel has been preparing in recent weeks for such a move on the part of the PM, due to the lack of progress on approval for the state budget for next year. Netanyahu said last week that until mid-October he would announce whether he intends to try and pass the budget, or to dissolve the Knesset and hold early elections.

Members of the Likud Knesset faction estimated last week that Netanyahu would declare early elections for next February, and that he had no intention of committing political suicide pushing through a budget that includes decrees and cuts and could harm his standing in an elections year.

Netanyahu planned to dissolve the current Knesset last May, when the Knesset plenum approved the first call on a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections within three months. But before the second of three votes had come up, Netanyahu surprised everyone when he announced a coalition with Kadima. That coalition was short lived, lasting only some 60 days.

It is expected that once Netanyahu receives a new mandate – since he and the Likud are well ahead of their rivals in the current polls – he will move to pass the harsh budget no one dares pass before the elections.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/netanyahu-dissolves-the-knesset-announces-early-elections/2012/10/09/

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