Commitments Not Reaffirmed


By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-2-12

Are there any progressives out there sufficiently committed to the peace process and the two-state solution to criticize Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly? Abbas’s address once again proved his “moderation” to be a masquerade, as he plunged Palestinians and Israelis into round after round of the delegitimization derby, piling on insults and libels, making it difficult for any self-respecting Israeli government to respond constructively. And the fact that after more than 1,600 words of denunciations and demonization, he claimed to “reaffirm, without hesitation,” his and his people’s commitment to “peace and international legitimacy,” suggested that he was insulting the international community’s intelligence, not just the Israeli “occupier.”

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)


Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)

Before Abbas’s false call for peace, he warned of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine.” He used the code words his mentor Yasser Arafat first injected into the Israeli-Palestinian conversation: “racist,” “discriminatory,” “ethnic cleansing,” “siege,” “apartheid,” “terrorism,” “colonial,” etc. etc. Most of these words were purposely imported into the language about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s to turn discussion of the conflict from its local particulars to universal condemnations, as a way of linking the Palestinians with all Third World victims of Western powers. Bringing new meaning to the word chutzpah, Abbas then complained about “an Israeli political discourse that does not hesitate to brandish aggressive, extremist positions, which in many aspects and its practical application on the ground is inciting religious conflict.”

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech began with an affirmation of Jewish history not a negation of the Palestinians. He segued into his call for “a durable peace with the Palestinians” by talking about a point of common civility: how Israeli doctors treated Palestinian Arabs in Israelis hospitals. Netanyahu did criticize Abbas’s rant by saying: “We won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the U.N.,” but he limited his denunciations of the Palestinian Authority to two sentences, admittedly spending more time than that attacking Iran and Islamism.

This is not to say that Abbas’s speech had no merit and that Netanyahu’s speech was unassailable. It was heartbreaking to hear Abbas’s account of what he called “at least 535 attacks perpetrated” against Palestinians by Israeli settlers “since the beginning of this year.” The Israeli government must have zero tolerance for such criminal behavior, which is legally and morally wrong. At the same time, Netanyahu’s crude cartoon illustrating the Iranian bomb threat was undignified and unhelpful. Domestic critics are mocking Netanyahu’s address as “the Looney Tunes speech”—and such criticism is deserved.

But on the Palestinian issue, one cannot equate the Israeli Prime Minister’s constructive approach with the Palestinian Authority President’s rhetorical howitzers. Of course, that is precisely what the New York Times and others did. Generating the usual fog of moral equivalence, the Times editorial “Talking at Cross Purposes,” acknowledged Abbas’s “exceptionally sharp rhetoric” while excusing it, and noted Netanyahu’s “reference to wanting peace with the Palestinians” while dismissing it as “brief” and insincere.

For peace to be achieved—in fact, for any real progress to occur—all actors in this enduring drama will have to break out of their assigned roles. Palestinians will have to stop playing the victim and demonizing Israel. And those observers supposedly devoted to peace will have to start criticizing, cajoling, inspiring, and reassuring both sides, showing a willingness to condemn Palestinian actions when warranted and even grant compliments to Israel, if warranted.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Top Ten Apologies We Need to Hear– and Those I Offer


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-24-12

Although apologies are often required throughout the year, during these ten days of penitence Jews are supposed to struggle harder and ask forgiveness for offenses they overlooked during the year – or for cumulative injuries beyond the dramatic hit-and-run sins for which they need to apologize immediately. While “I’m sorry” is the simple phrase to become friends again and make amends, sometimes more elaborate apologies are required – or offered. The legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s classic supplication “When I make a mistake it’s a beaut,” conveyed his large personality, when right or wrong. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did not just say, “We were wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam, he added, poignantly, “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”  And the Yom Kippur “Ashamnu” prayer is doubly poetic, in affirming individual and community responsibility with its cascade of communal sins, from A to Z.

In the US, Mitt Romney so fears that Barack Obama’s apologies for American foreign policy conveyed weakness, especially to the Arab world, that he issued a manifesto:  “No Apology – the Case for American Greatness.”   While dodging that debate, we should note that the two concepts “apology” and “greatness” are not inherently at odds.  The right apology – proportionate, appropriate, heartfelt – elevates; the wrong apology – grudging, insincere, or unnecessary, demeans.

A grudging or false apology is like a botched shofar blow. We await a clear, dramatic clarion call, at once familiar yet unique, but end with a tepid pffft of hot air, blocked sound, and dashed hopes.  Every parent has had to extract a more sincere apology after a child spit out the words “I’m sorry.”  In March, 1987, Ronald Reagan offered an older man’s variation on the schoolboy’s side step when he said about the Iran-Contra affair:  “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” One Reagan staffer wrote out the words he believed the American people wanted to hear — “I’m sorry” — but the President purposely ignored the text.

I do not solicit apologies from terrorists, murderers and the like. We don’t share the same moral universe, which is essential for repentance and reconciliation. But in honor of these ten days, here are ten individual apologies I would love to hear, based on recent events:

  • From Barack Obama to the American people for allowing his personal pique at Bibi Netanyahu to unsettle Israelis just when they need more demonstrations of American friendship, both symbolic and real.
  • From Bibi Netanyahu to the Israeli people for allowing his lack of personal chemistry with Barack Obama to cloud relations with Israel’s closest ally.
  • From Tzipi Livni to the Israeli electorate for failing to secure the job of foreign minister in Netanyahu’s government, Livni could have forged a relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that would have alleviated some of the predictable Obama-Netanyahu tension.
  • From Ehud Olmert to his fellow citizens and to the Jewish people for failing to live up to the high ethical standards we merit from our leaders.
  • From Shaul Mofaz for making Israeli politics appear even more ridiculous than usual by leaving the coalition as abruptly as he joined it – what could he possibly have learned about Netanyahu, the Likud, or Israeli politics he didn’t know before he joined?
  • From Bill Clinton to the American people for demonstrating once again his tremendous political talents, thereby reminding many of us that his presidency disappointed because he indulged his baser needs, repeatedly.
  • From Mitt Romney to the “47 percent” of Americans he dismissed for allegedly being too dependent on government handouts – and to the other 53 percent for failing to offer the uplifting, competent, gaffe-free campaign all Americans yearn for, regardless of partisan affiliation – or net worth.
  • From the Haredi extremist bullies who spat on 8-year-old Na’ama Margolis in Bet Shemesh, and to all those who sweep innocent children into their vortex of hate.
  • From the Jewish teenagers, their parents, their teachers, and in some cases their rabbis, who attacked a young Arab Jamal Julani in Jerusalem, and to all bigots and hooligans everywhere.
  • From UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for emboldening Iran and undermining the Western campaign of sanctions by attending the non-aligned movement meeting in Tehran.

On a personal note, allow me to apologize publicly to all friends, colleagues, relatives, students and readers for whatever words or actions of mine that hurt them this year. I apologize specifically for resorting to sarcasm in a recent column when challenging rabbis-for-Obama not to assert their spiritual authority to make partisan endorsements. The confrontational tone contradicted my work in various contexts, such as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program and the Red Lines and Blue-and-White Lines initiative, trying to construct as big and as welcoming a tent as possible when talking about Israel and Zionism. Striking the right balance on issues close to our hearts is easy to endorse, sometimes hard to implement. I promise to do better in this realm and others.

The difference between a heartfelt apology and one that is phoned-in is the difference between ending up with a relationship doomed to stagnate – at best — and one that can be renewed. True reconciliation is not a monologue but a dialogue. An artful apology not only expresses the deliverer’s remorse but recruits the recipient to accept, stretch, and join in the act of resetting.

In the spirit of the season, I wish everyone a meaningful fast, a good stretch, a healthy epidemic of heartfelt reconciliations and revitalizing resets.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published in November.

What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-31-12

Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.

Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.

We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they buil t a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.

Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.

Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.

Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.

So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.

Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.

Kadima Marches Backwards


By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-24-12

Can you split fog? Apparently you can in Israeli politics, as four Kadima MKs leave their faction to support Likud.

As of this writing—and it being Israeli politics, anything can change–Otniel Schneller, Avi Duan, Arieh Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich will be voting with the governing Likud coalition, even though their vague, undefined, ideologically obscure party bolted the coalition last week. This shift has their former Kadima comrades trying to strip them of privileges by appealing to the Knesset House Committee, as Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “pimping” Kadima MKs—although I think he meant seducing.

The defection of the four is only a partial victory for Bibi, who continues to show more enthusiasm for politicking than governing. Had he wooed three more Kadima MKs for a total of seven, he would have triggered an official party split. Now, he has just made a royal political mess. Even some Likud loyalists are unhappy.  “The Likud is not a political garbage can,” Likud MK Danny Danon growled. “We won’t allow slots to be reserved for opportunists who left a sinking ship.”


Shaul Mofaz (C), Chairman of the Kadima party, arrives for a special faction meeting at the Knesset (Gali Tibbon / AFP / GettyImages)

The irony is that Danon’s “opportunists who left a sinking ship” line could apply to Kadima’s start as well as whaKadima Marches Backwardst now may be its finish.  Many Kadima MKs were former Likudniks who abandoned that party when Ariel Sharon was alive and well and maneuvering politically, seeking support for the disengagement from Gaza.  Kadima became labeled the “centrist” party because it was to the Likud’s “left” on territorial compromise. But the labeling dismayed those of us who seek muscular moderates, politicians deeply committed to the idea of center-seeking.  Kadima’s mock moderates’ entrance into a marriage of convenience with Netanyahu, which has now dissolved, were motivated by expedience, not principle or vision.

Apparently, the Knesset House Committee will reject Kadima’s call to sanction the deserters. But their defection raises fascinating legal questions—is an individual elected to the Knesset or is the party simply authorized to fill a particular slot based on the number of votes it received?  One of the biggest problems with Israeli politics is that Knesset legislators are too beholden to their parties and rarely act as free agents. Israel needs some regional representation and more personal legislative accountability.  The parties are too powerful and individual constituents do not have a real Knesset address for particular problems, adding to the general cynicism and disaffection.

Sometime these kinds of party defections can be part of a helpful ideological realignment. Unfortunately, this spectacle appears to be one more round in a perpetual series of political maneuvers, and seems more destined to discourage than inspire, to alienate rather than activate.  Netanyahu will emerge a little stronger after this round but not strong enough, or courageous enough, to confront the Ultra-Orthodox on the draft issue. The Knesset, alas, continues to be more like a cross between the Chicago City Council and an Arab souk, rather than the suitably sacred yet secularized update to the Sanhedrin the early Zionists envisioned.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Get Creative For Yossi Falafel


By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-17-12

Shaul Mofaz’s decision to lead his centrist Kadima party out of Israel’s broad coalition government shows that there is at least one politician left in the Western world who has a bottom line, which he called a  “red line.”  Standing on principle, refusing to delay military or national service to age 26, Mofaz proclaimed: “He who says 26, doesn’t want true equality.” Mofaz’s departure–supported by all but three Kadima Knesset members–spotlights both the ideological fight over the Ultra-Orthodox role in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising failure to lead.

Using the “E” word–equality–mounts the ideological issue on two pillars. First, Mofaz and Kadima are fighting to make Israel a liberal democracy, which is a collection of individual citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, rather than a democratic republic, which is a coalition of competing groups. The “Haredim” should not have group rights–even though some legal wiggle room respecting their collective sensibilities is in keeping with Israel’s public character and the Zionist vision.



Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest against a uniform draft law to replace the Tal Law on July 16, 2012 (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)


The second pillar is the “equity” part of equality. Mofaz is playing to the many middle class, non-Arab, non-Haredi Israelis who are tired of being “freirim,” the Hebrew word for suckers. Although the plain-speaking former general is not one for high-falutin’ phrases or philosophy, he is defending one of the modern democratic state’s fundamental building blocks–the Lockean social contract, wherein individuals sacrifice certain rights and take on particular responsibilities, including defending the collective against harm.

Mofaz’s move once again makes a mockery of all the Churchillian aspirations that Benjamin Netanyahu writes about in his books, casting the Israeli Prime Minister as more Chicago ward heeler than courageous statesman. Netanyahu’s deferral to Ultra-Orthodox sensibilities is curious. Ideologically, he is more of a liberal nationalist in the Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky tradition, and has blocked many of the more undemocratic and anti-libertarian moves proposed by some of his more authoritarian coalition colleagues. But on this issue of Haredi service his pusillanimous silence has been disappointing and self-defeating. If Netanyahu mimicked Mofaz and grew a backbone on this issue, he could not only calm the broad Israeli center, he could all but guarantee his re-election.

This issue demands more creativity and bolder leadership. For example, Netanyahu could demand all Haredim take on service as responsible Israeli citizens, while allowing a marriage exemption. This would protect the principle but give many Haredim, who marry young, an out that might be more palatable to the Israeli version of Joe Six Pack–call him Yossi Falafel–who in Israel too would be married to a soccer mom. Netanyahu could also pressure the Haredi rabbis, taking advantage of the hierarchies within the community. And, for someone who is so proud of his silver tongue, he could try addressing the people, articulating core principles, proposing a decent compromise, and affirming the kind of national vision so many Israelis yearn to hear from a heroic leader who does not fear his coalition members and does not succumb to Ultra-Orthodox threats.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Abbas the Masquerading Moderate Caricatures a Hellish Jerusalem


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-28-12

Reading the news, you would think that Mahmoud Abbas’s real first name is “The Moderate” and Benjamin Netanyahu’s real last name is “the Extremist.”  Googling the words “Abbas” and “Moderate” yields 4.47 million hits, while “Netanyahu” and “Moderate” get 2.53 million hits. “Abbas” and “Extremism” yield 2.45 million hits while “Netanyahu” and “Extremism” produce 12.8 million. Although Googling is a gross indicator, it seems that the media is at least twice as likely to dub Abbas a “moderate” rather than Netanyahu, while Netanyahu is accused of “extremism” five to six times more frequently than Abbas is.
Yet sheer repetition of an assertion is not enough to make it true. Mahmoud Abbas is to moderation what moldy oranges are to penicillin. If purified properly, the product could be healing; but as it now stands, it is putrid and possibly toxic.
Rather than responding positively to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech and President Barack Obama’s multiple attempts to restart the peace process, Abbas the Masquerading Moderate has been the Great Obstructionist, far more accommodating of his Hamas rivals than his American bankrollers. Admittedly, his touch is lighter and less lethal than his predecessor Yassir Arafat. And thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, many Palestinians have been doing what they most need to do, which is building an independent, stable Palestine rather than trying to destroy neighboring Israel.
But again and again Abbas has been Dr. No – blocking progress when Netanyahu implemented a settlement freeze, and now demanding a settlement freeze as one of his many preconditions for negotiation. So far, the settlement freeze demand is President Barack Obama’s most memorable contribution to the Middle East, an amateurish gift to Palestinian obstructionists, made-in-America. Every time Abbas demands a settlement freeze, he further undermines the most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter.
This week, Abbas traveled to Doha to participate in an “International Conference on Jerusalem,” with representatives from 70 countries.  Anti-Zionist discourse in that part of the Middle East was as ubiquitous as Muzak is in elevators in the Midwest, intensified by the added volatility of the Jerusalem issue, with a dash of anti-Americanism thrown in. Among the many presentations caricaturing Zionism as racism and Israel as an apartheid state, one activist, Ken Isley, introduced himself as “an American” then added:  “no one is perfect.”
When Abbas spoke, rather than injecting a note of responsibility into the proceedings, providing a reality check, he joined the anti-Israel pile on.  He claimed Israel wants to “carry out continued excavations that threaten to undermine the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in order to extract evidence that supports the Israeli version of Judaism.” He said Israelis wanted to “Judaize” the city and “were preparing models of what they call the Temple in order to build on the ruins of Al Aqsa.”
Any one of these three incendiary ideas would earn an extremist street “cred” as a flamethrower. Few Israelis are proposing a Third Temple. Claiming “the Jews” wish to replace the Al-Aqsa Mosque with their own structure is a demagogic call for Arab rioting in Jerusalem and elsewhere.  Second, mischievous phrases like “the Israeli version of Judaism” and “what they call the Temple,” try to rob Jews of our history, our legitimacy, our nationality. Abbas’s words echo longstanding Palestinian claims that Judaism is a religion with no peoplehood component, that the Temple never existed, and that the whole Zionist, meaning Jewish nationalist, project is a fraud.
Finally, Abbas’s allegations about “Judaizing” Jerusalem ignore the fact that Jerusalem is already Jewish and Muslim and Christian. Abbas’s implication, that Jews are engaged in ethnic cleansing, would require us to characterize modern Israelis as incompetent not just evil. Today’s Jerusalem has 800,000 residents, including 268,000 Arabs. In the nearly 45 years since the 1967 Six Day War, the Arab population has grown by 200,000, and many Arabs today appreciate their Israeli rights and services. The number of Arab Jerusalemites granted Israeli citizenship quadrupled from 2006 to 2010. If Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing, Israelis would have to admit to being the worst – meaning the most ineffectual — “ethnic cleansers” in history, having triggered a population increase due to higher quality of life including more freedom.
Once again, Abbas missed an opportunity to play the statesman. He overlooked Jerusalem’s potential as a platform of unity welcoming the religiously minded, the spiritually seeking, the historically attuned, the peace loving. He played the Jerusalem card, riling his audience, and alienating Israelis. That he nevertheless passes for a moderate, demonstrates just how extreme other Palestinian voices are, such as Hamas, and just how indulgent world opinion is when it comes to coddling the Palestinians.
In the last few weeks I have greeted four groups of non-Jews visiting Jerusalem. All of them were struck by how peaceful, how functional, the real Jerusalem is, rather than the terrifying Jerusalem of the headlines they expected. Jewish lore teaches about the heavenly Jerusalem – Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah – and the earthly Jerusalem – Yerushalayim Shel Matah. There is a third Jerusalem in play too – Yerushalyim Shel Gehennom – the Hellish Jerusalem. This is the construct of reporters and political activists who only see the violence, the hatred, the ugliness without acknowledging the loveliness or the sheer normalcy for the overwhelming majority of the city’s residents, the overwhelming majority of the time.
Propagandists use the deep emotions the Heavenly Jerusalem stirs to further anger people while painting their distorted portrait of the Hellish Jerusalem. True moderates acknowledge complexity, see multiple dimensions, using the messiness of life to humanize and compromise rather than polarize. By ignoring the earthly Jerusalem, the mundane Jerusalem, day-to-day Jerusalem, Mahmoud Abbas once again failed to live up to his press clippings – disproving so many policy makers’ false perceptions of him as a peacemaker.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

Liar, liar, the Israel discourse is on fire…


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-11

There we go again. President Barack Obama grouses about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being a pain, after President Nicholas Sarkozy of France calls Netanyahu a “liar.” Many pro-Israel partisans then condemn Obama as “anti-Israel.” Meanwhile, when the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) request that the “US-Israel friendship … never be used as a political wedge issue,” critics accuse them of trying “to stifle debate on US policy toward Israel.”

We need a little subtlety, even in our hysterical age. America’s President can dislike Israel’s Prime Minister without hating the State itself. And we can – and should — vigorously debate that President’s Middle East policy without being sidetracked by questioning his basic support for a Jewish state or turning the deep bond uniting America and Israel into a divisive flashpoint. When Prime Minister Jean Chretien detested President George W. Bush, Canada and the US remained best friends.

We come by this hysteria honestly. The rise of Fox News and the Internet have reduced political communication to short tweets and shrill blogs.  Moreover, the Israel debate often escalates into a high-stakes confrontation, because the stakes are so high. Israel is surrounded by enemies who have found the one country whose destruction you can champion and whose citizens you can target without sacrificing your own standing in the world.

Decades of delegitimizing Israel has victimized us all. Wherever we stand politically or religiously, whether we are Jewish or not, Zionist or not, religious or secular, pro-Israel or anti-Israel, left or right, pro-settlement or anti-occupation, our understanding of Middle East issues has been distorted by the systematic 63-year-old campaign against Israel’s right to exist.  No other country has endured such an ideological assault – frequently backed by deadly attacks. No other country remains on probation more than six decades after its founding. No other country has so many issues, be they major or minor, elevated from discussions of particular policies or actions to existential tests questioning whether it deserves to survive.  No one is immune to this ugliness. The assault poisons the perspectives of even the most “pro-Israel” activists.

The polluted atmosphere surrounding Israel, generated by Arabs and anti-Zionist collaborators, creates its own dense, highly combustible, ideological smog, which clouds perceptions and makes Israel discourse inflammatory. The first major distortion is that the blame-Israel-all-the-time-no-matter-what approach gives Israel’s enemies a free pass.  In the latest impasse, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who, has long outlived his mandate, has been playing Dr. No. He is the one, again and again, who has said “no” to negotiations, “no” to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, “no” to President Barack Obama’s entreaties not to bypass give-and-take in search of unilateral UN freebies. And yet, much of the world, peering in through a polluted prism, deems Benjamin Netanyahu the obstructionist in chief.  Whatever the fuller exchange was between Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, their “Blame Bibi” bonding moment reflects this spoiled ideological environment.

The second major distortion is this abrupt, zero-to-sixty emotional jump when discussing Israel – among detractors and supporters. Israel’s critics frequently morph into Israel’s enemies as they one-sidedly blame Israel, exaggerate Israel’s flaws, and elevate minor errors into capital crimes. The intense microscope the world focuses on Israel magnifies small imperfections into justifications that enemies already predisposed to hate it use to demand its destruction or that more naïve observers use for abandoning the Jewish state. Amid this relentless barrage, Israel’s defenders have trouble distinguishing friend from foe, valid criticism from hysterical, existential attack. Israel’s extreme critics shirk responsibility for the damage their fanaticism has caused the peace process and the natural, self-critical process every democracy needs to reform.  Subtleties get lost. Lines get drawn. Tempers flare. The status quo calcifies.

Barack Obama’s Israel policy warrants scrutiny – and deserves criticism. He has been unduly harsh on Israel, wrongly biased in his excessive criticism, naively blind to Palestinian recalcitrance, unfairly hostile to Bibi Netanyahu, generally insensitive to Israeli fears, foolishly hamhanded in singlehandedly creating this whole settlement freeze precondition to negotiation, contemptibly weak in dealing with the Arab world, depressingly clueless in misreading the Islamist storm threatening the Arab spring, cruelly passive back in 2009 when Iran’s Green Revolution first erupted, and singularly inept in managing the Middle East. But I would not call him anti-Israel. I reserve that term for people, like Jimmy Carter, unlike Barack Obama, who do not believe in the idea of a Jewish state, are blatantly anti-Zionist, compare Israel to South Africa’s despicable, departed apartheid regime, or attack Israel verbally, ideologically or physically.

Therefore, it is important in this 2012 presidential campaign to debate Obama’s Middle East policies, learn from his mistakes, and test his rival to see if any improvement can be expected, in orientation, conception, or execution. It is fair to raise the awkward question of why the Democratic Party, once the party of pro-Israel stalwarts like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, still the party of Ed Koch, Bill Clinton, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, has become the home of the vicious, genuinely anti-Israel minority on Capitol Hill and across the United States. And it is reasonable to ask Republicans to help voters distinguish between supporting Israel existentially and handling the Middle East effectively.

So, yes, the ADL and the AJC are A-OK, support for Israel should remain bipartisan without becoming a wedge issue. But Barack Obama’s Israel policy should be debated—he certainly has not earned a free pass – as should the question of how the party which enjoys the uncompromising loyalty and bountiful generosity of the vast majority of American Jews can so comfortably house the hard anti-Israel left as well. A tent that broad just might need some architectural restructuring.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “A History of American Presidential Elections.”

Gates, Ingrates and Israel: America’s Indispensable Ally


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-13-11

Last week, a zinger landed in Jerusalem from Washington, DC, the land of the leakers. Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News reported that former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Barack Obama, as “ungrateful.” Gates reportedly “stated bluntly that the US has received nothing” from Israel, despite “the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel’s security” – and no one present on Obama’s National Security team disagreed. If a “gaffe” means a politician caught in the act of telling the truth, such “leaks” are more like precision guided missiles, with specific targets and exact timing.

The message was clear: the Obama Administration resents squandering so much political capital by opposing the Palestinian play for statehood. In return, Obama and his team expect payback from Israel – while also wishing to humiliate their nemesis, Bibi Netanyahu. Unfortunately, once again the Obama Administration misread the power dynamics in today’s world, unfairly impugned Netanyahu, inaccurately maligned Israel itself, and gave Israel’s enemies a gift they do not deserve. Throughout years of distinguished public service, Robert Gates never uttered a memorable phrase. But the anti-Israel crowd will be crowing about Israel, the supposedly “ungrateful ally,” for decades to come.

Legend incorrectly credits President Harry Truman with saying: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” while foreign policy’s defining cliché has long been that “nations have no friends or enemies, only interests.” Although rooted in common values and a deep friendship, the Israeli-American alliance flourishes thanks to common interests and mutual need. The United States will abandon allies when convenient – as the Shah of Iran and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt learned, painfully. The US is resisting the Palestinian attempt to dodge negotiations by prematurely declaring independence because Washington fears more Middle East tumult. With Egypt teetering, Turkey acting out, Saudi Arabia untrustworthy, Iran ascendant, America needs a strong, stable Israel. The dangers of Palestinian chaos or a Hamas takeover are too great to trust inflammatory gestures at the biased, ineffectual UN.

While Secretary Gates is correct that Bibi Netanyahu should have handled his last visit to Washington more diplomatically, Bibiphobia – irrational, obsessive hatred of Israel’s Prime Minister – is now epidemic, in Washington, among American Jewish elites, and in world capitals. This Monday’s New York Times editorial defied rules of logic and good writing by claiming “Both sides share the blame [for a stalled peace process] with Mr. Obama and Arab leaders” but immediately added: “(we put the greater onus on Mr. Netanyahu, who has used any excuse to thwart peace efforts).” If a student wrote this I would X it in red and write: “CONTRADICTORY — do you want to blame Netanyahu or everyone, be clear!”

Moreover, Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy under President George W. Bush, deftly debunked the Gates critique, remembering Gates using similar language, blasting Israel as “ungrateful,” in 2007, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was peace processing actively. This recollection derails the Blame Bibi forces. Gates’s complaints, Abrams notes, “are not new and should not, in fairness, be attributed to recent developments or blamed on Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

As we commemorate 9/11, it is shocking to hear an American leader deem Israel ungrateful – rather than an indispensable ally nurturing a mutual friendship, which has entailed occasional sacrifice too. If Gates sought to chide ungrateful allies, America certainly has its share. Most Third World nations, like Egypt, have long cashed American checks, but trashed American values. Saudi Arabia spawned and bankrolled the 9/11 Islamist ideology. And Europeans have embraced anti-Americanism (along with anti-Zionism) as one of the few acceptable prejudices in the PC EU.

By contrast:

In the 1960s, Israel humiliated Soviet allies and thwarted Soviet foreign policy in the Six Day War – when America badly needed a big Cold War win like that to balance out its own Vietnam failure.

In the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War, Israel taught the American military invaluable, real-time lessons for countering Soviet weaponry, then shared captured equipment – after having sustained devastating losses when the war began by not attacking pre-emptively because America requested restraint.

In the 1980s, Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, initially infuriating Ronald Reagan’s Administration – but ultimately earning gratitude worldwide for keeping Saddam Hussein nuke free.

In the 1990s, Israel refrained from retaliating after Saddam bombed Tel Aviv with Scud missiles – again sacrificing strategic interests to advance American interests, in this case preserving President George H.W. Bush’s broad coalition against Saddam to free Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

Most recently, since September 11, Israel has been a steadfast partner, coach, guinea pig, friend, helping America fight its multifront war against shadowy Islamist terrorists – who, unlike some Western elites, see the harmony of values and convergence of interests linking two great friends, the State of Israel, and the United States of America. Israeli anti-terror techniques have saved the lives of many soldiers formerly under Secretary Gates’s command, as they trained in urban warfare techniques and learned how to defuse roadside bombs with Israeli colleagues. And Israelis are among the most pro-American people in the world.

Last Friday night, as Egyptian mobs menaced six Israeli security guards, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called President Barack Obama – and Obama demanded the Egyptians avert a tragedy. Israel should, of course, be grateful for Obama’s intervention, which was, characteristically, another noble gesture that also served America’s interest. A Cairo bloodbath would have roiled the world. This is the model Americans and Israelis have followed for decades – looking out for each other and building an ideal friendship, forged in core ideals sustained by a unity of purpose and mutual payoffs, a perpetual win-win. For that, both Americans and Israelis should be … grateful.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he is currently completing his sixth book about American history.

How do you solve a problem like Obama…

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-7-11

I understand Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s instincts to confront President Barack Obama. Obama’s blaming Netanyahu while absolving the Palestinians is unfair. Obama’s ignoring Israel’s many concessions, Netanyahu’s movement toward a two-state solution, and the improved ground conditions under Netanyahu, is unacceptable. Obama’s humiliating Netanyahu with cold shoulders one trip, and pre-emptive speech strikes another trip, is ungracious. And Obama’s overlooking that Israelis feel burned, having watched Oslo’s concessions produce Palestinian terrorism, the Lebanon withdrawal fuel Hezbollah’s ascendance, and the Gaza disengagement yield a rain of rockets, is unfathomable.

If Netanyahu or anyone else in the pro-Israel community could prophesize that Obama will not get re-elected, the current strategy would make sense. But Obama still looks stronger for November 2012 than any Republican wannabes. Because Israel might face a President Obama until January 2017, with four final years unconstrained by re-election hopes, it is foolish to try embarrassing or circumventing him.

Netanyahu must remember that American foreign policy hinges on one individual, the President. Pro-Israel forces should not call this president anti-Israel, when he endorses “a secure Israel… as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” Barack Obama may be America’s most pro-Palestinian incumbent president (Jimmy Carter is the most pro-Palestinian ex-president). Obama absorbed the politically correct atmosphere of Harvard Law in the late 1980s, along with the academic disdain and his preacher’s hatred for Israel in Chicago in the 1990s. But chariness is not hostility, especially in today’s universe of Israel-bashing world leaders. Labeling Obama anti-Israel is inaccurate, insulting and risks making him so.

How, then, do you solve a problem like Obama? Seeking subtlety, remember that the last two Presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, while now considered “pro-Israel,” each clashed with Israel. Clinton, like Obama, craved a comprehensive Middle East peace, struggling with an Israeli Prime Minister named … Binyamin Netanyahu. Clinton hosted the arch-terrorist Yasir Arafat more times than any other foreign guest. Similarly, when the Palestinians first returned to terrorism, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell, regularly characterized Israel’s reactions as “too aggressive,” feeding the “cycle of violence.”

Eventually, Palestinian extremism transformed both Presidents. In 2000, Clinton blamed Arafat for unleashing the violence. Days before Clinton left office, Arafat visited the White House yet again, calling the President a “great man.” Clinton lashed back: “No, I’m not. On this I’m a failure, and you made me a failure.”

Two years later, in January 2002, Arafat tried bluffing George W. Bush, denying any involvement with Iran’s Karine-A arms shipment – contradicting clear proof. “Arafat lied directly to Bush,” one official reported. “No one does that, least of all someone who’s already on probation,” it being four months after September 11. Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic described Bush’s disgust: “As a result, Arafat has accomplished what Ariel Sharon never could. He has aligned the United States and Israel more closely than at any time since the Reagan presidency.” Three months later, in April 2002, Bush backed Israel’s counter-offensive against Palestinian terrorism.

Never stop your enemy when he is harming himself. Considering that Mahmoud Abbas rejected Ehud Olmert’s generous territorial offer, why should Netanyahu hinder progress? Without sacrificing national self-respect, without accepting historical lies, Netanyahu should position himself as Obama’s ally in seeking peace. Netanyahu should emphasize his already stated openness to negotiations – including the proposed Paris talks. He should highlight his embrace of a two-state solution. And he should minimize disagreements with the President. Trust the Palestinians to reject the peace plan, while hoping they might be ready to make peace.

While Israel reveals its true character and defining consensus by pursuing peace, the pro-Israel community should follow the AIPAC strategy emphasizing American support for Israel as bipartisan. Calling the President or the Democrats anti-Israel, making Israel a wedge issue, is self-defeating. Anti-Israel Democrats should feel marginalized, not validated by seeing a polarizing, frontal assault on the President. Most Americans are pro-Israel. The party dynamics should reflect that happy reality.

The political dynamics must change from Bibi versus Obama to the Palestinians versus peace. Netanyahu made his stand, garnered his American applause, and reaped his domestic popularity bonanza. Now he needs damage control.

Words count. No one should attack “Obama’s 1967 border plan,” but the Palestinians’ all-or-nothing border plan. When the Palestinians encourage delegitimization of Israel, we should quote Obama saying “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.” When the question comes as to who should show up at a peace parley, Israel should declare its willingness to negotiate and quote the President, asking the “Palestinian leaders” for “a credible answer” to the question “how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.”

Words count. Still, American politics remains a contact sport. Pro-Israel donors should withhold their donations to Obama’s re-election, not because Obama is “anti-Israel” but because he has been ineffectual in unfairly burdening Israel. We should continue explaining historically why the Palestinians are lying when they claim they accepted the 1947 partition, and are hindering peace when they try freezing time by demand a right to return for descendants of refugees or consecrate the improvised 1949 armistice borders. Better to target these Palestinian positions, destructive Palestinian actions, the PA’s continuing incitement to evil, Hamas’ exterminationist charter, Hezbollah’s mad dash for missiles, and Iran’s genocidal aims, while leaving the President out of range.

Essentially, the pro-Israel community should trust the truth, emphasizing Israeli willingness to compromise, Palestinian addiction to rejectionism and violence, along with the broad, bipartisan pro-Israel American consensus. This upbeat, subtle approach may deprive Israeli voters of displays of macho bravado. It may not provide Diaspora supporters a kick in the Zionist adrenals. But it just might work.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

Dueling diplomacy: Bibi’s boo-boo triggered Barack’s backlash

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-24-11

In the latest diplomatic slap down pitting the President of the United States against the Prime Minister of Israel, Israel lost – as did both leaders. Barack Obama looked like an amateurish bungler, roiling a region which needs calm while once again pouring cement onto three Palestinian positions which need softening– the 1967 borders, the “right” of return and the continuing refusal to negotiate. Binyamin Netanyahu may have looked less foolish – and looked less petulant in their dueling White House soliloquies – but he did more harm. This debacle was avoidable, but Bibi’s boo-boo triggered Barack’s backlash.

Watching Obama’s State Department speech was like reading a bad undergraduate paper. The first part, regarding the Arab spring, was too vague. The second part, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was too specific. Obama seemed unprepared. He did not sound ready to articulate an Obama Doctrine that can guide American action as the Arab world changes. Beyond endorsing democracy and peace, Obama neither explained his previous reactions nor offered clear guidelines for future actions. Meanwhile Obama’s Dictate for Israeli-Palestinian progress felt rushed, not properly previewed to prevent squabbles, struggles, then backpedals. The brouhaha over his endorsing 1967 borders with swaps, and the fear he fed the Palestinian delusion that the “right” of return is achievable, were both avoidable. But, like a harried undergraduate producing a pointless paper just to be on time, Obama had his own deadline. He hurried to pre-empt Netanyahu’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress.

The Republican Speaker of the House must be delighted with the trap he sprang on the Democratic president – using Bibi as bait. John Boehner drew the President into this mess, which probably alienated more Democratic donors, forced Obama to massage his Thursday remarks on Sunday, and sparked a distracting firestorm which can only damage the President.

When Republican leaders invited him to address Congress, Netanyahu probably considered this a great coup. Bibi would have one of the world’s greatest stage sets to show off his oratorical talents, while outmaneuvering Obama and fellow Israel-skeptics before pro-Israel Republicans.

But Netanyahu overlooked the defining rule of gravity in Israel-America relations – in any confrontation between the President and the Prime Minister, Israel loses. With the United States the superpower and Israel the lonely little guy, Israel’s dependence on American friendship is too great. An Israeli Prime Minster may succeed in tweaking a particular policy, but only by draining the reservoir of presidential goodwill. So when, as happened Thursday, an Israeli Prime Minister yells at the American Secretary of State, just before a major presidential address, Israel loses. When the Prime Minister denounces presidential proposals before visiting the President, Israel loses. When the President stews as the Prime Minister lectures him, albeit eloquently and indirectly, Israel loses. And when the President sits at a joint press appearance, with his hand placed protectively over his body and under his chin, telegraphing mistrust of the Prime Minister, Israel loses.

Once Obama said what he said, Bibi had to say what he said. But Obama said what he said because Bibi was going to say what he wanted to say to Congress. With a president like Obama, who instinctively blames Israel as the obstacle to peace, the less attention he pays to the region, the better. Netanyahu made his ritualistic visit to AIPAC a big deal by accepting the Congressional invitation. Predictably, the New York Times headline “OBAMA PRESSES ISRAEL TO MAKE ‘HARD CHOICES’,” resulted.

Not all exchanges hurt Israel. Obama disapproved of delegitimizing Israel and said the Palestinians must explain how to work for peace while working with Hamas, whose charter advocates Israel’s destruction. And there is value in the vigorous debate that erupted about what peace can look like, and how to use history as a helpful guideline, not an incendiary device.

Barack Obama believes that to support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he must free Israelis from today’s status quo prison, reinforced by comfortable complacency and existential fears. That goal explains why he focuses on the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control, yearning for real statehood and full civil liberties. But as America’s most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter, Obama also must free the Palestinians from their nostalgic prison reinforced by lingering longings and deadly hatreds. He must tell them that time does not stand still, that they must dream more about their future state rather than deliriously demanding or violently planning a return to 1967 or 1947. Yet, somehow, Obama’s finger points more easily and wags more vigorously at Israeli caution than Palestinian obstructionism, rejectionism, and violence.

The logical starting point in advocating a two-state solution comes by acknowledging that borders shifted and populations moved, particularly in historic Palestine. Only fools or fanatics claim that borders were ever perma-marked. We cannot undo history. We must move forward, from 2011, trying to minimize disruptions to populations while maximizing satisfaction on both sides. Rather than trying to freeze one random moment in historical time, demography and the current status quo should be our guides, tempered by sensitivity, creativity, and some history, but not too much. And being realistic entails dealing with the current president effectively. In assessing this week’s errors, hopefully Bibi Netanyahu will learn that not to provoke the President, and that scoring debating points only goes so far.

When Israelis and Americans squabble, Palestinian rejectionists rejoice. This spring’s great outrages are not Obama’s proposals or Netanyahu’s hesitations, but Fatah’s new friend in Hamas, Egypt’s new unreliability as a peace partner, Iran’s continuing rush to nuclear power, and the Arab world’s continuing war against Israel’s existence, aided by the left’s useful idiots. These common enemies, along with enduring common values, should keep America’s President and Israel’s Prime Minister cooperating, whatever tactical quibbles may arise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”