Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Israel and the Arab Nations - A Necessary Alliance?

Mudhar Zahran
An article Israel Hayom by Mudhar Zahran, a Palestinian Arab living in England speaks for itself. Even though this paper is owned by the politically right wing American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, I believe that what Zahran is saying may very well be the case. And maybe the not so secret view of Arab leaders in the region. If true, it could very well change the course of history. The article follows in its entirety

For some time, there have been voices within U.S. intellectual and academic circles that question how vital Israel is to the U.S. Some openly wonder whether Israel has done anything good for the U.S., or if Israel is actually important at all to American national interests. Such voices, while few, still manage to utilize a very effective anti-Israeli propaganda machine, for example the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, as well as some academic institutions that have chosen to turn themselves into enemies of the Jewish state. Their main argument is: What do we need Israel for?

Of course, those voices get a lot of support from us, the Arabs. We Arabs have been claiming for seven decades now that Israel is the source of all evil. Some of our rulers have been saying this to the Western media for decades. Basically, we claim that if Israel disappears, our lives will become wonderful and iPhones will grow on the trees in our backyards.

Nonetheless, facts on the ground suggest that these claims could not be further from the truth. Let's see why.

It is no secret that the Obama administration has had a very difficult relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Israel has become more vital to American interests than ever, for the following reasons:

First, Iran has been expanding its power in the region, as a result of decades of intelligence work and recently because of unprecedented U.S. tolerance for it. While the U.S. is negotiating with Iran, one of the U.S.'s leverage points is the fact that it is keeping Israel from launching a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, as Israel did to Saddam Hussein's reactor in 1981. Whether we agree with the usefulness of U.S. negotiations with Iran, one thing remains certain: The U.S. would have had a much weaker negotiating position had it not been for Iran's fear of a looming Israeli strike.

Further, with the Islamic State beast expanding in the region, many of the U.S.'s closest Arab allies could fall easily under Islamic State's sway if not for Israel. For example, given that Islamic State sympathizers have a base in southern Jordan, and control Jordan's border with Iraq and almost a third of Jordan's border with Syria, why is Islamic State not attacking Jordan? It knows it will have to face Israel if it harms Jordan's security, because Israel will not tolerate Islamic State in Jordan and threatening the Jordanian-Israeli border.

In addition, Islamic State would not dare make advances to southern Syria toward the Golan Heights, again, knowing that this would draw Israeli opposition. Instead, it has focused its operation far from Israel and into north-central Syria and western Iraq. This has limited Islamic State operations to particular areas and kept some of the U.S.'s most important allies safe.

It is true that the U.S. has the strongest military on the planet, and some of the most dedicated, patriotic and well-trained soldiers. But Israel has the regional experience, the know-how and the stamina to keep Islamic State at bay and fight it if necessary.

While the U.S. has many militarily strong Arab allies, those allies lack the one thing Israel has -- democracy. This means that you never know who will be in power tomorrow in those countries. Nor could the U.S. guarantee their stances toward it or toward terrorists. Today's moderate dictator could always wake up tomorrow and decide to go to war. Let's not forget that Saddam had been America's ally until the very morning he invaded Kuwait.

With unrest, chaos and uncertainty sweeping the Middle East, Israel remains one of the very few stable, strong and predictable American allies in the region.

As for us Arabs, while most of our governments would not admit it, we know that Israel is the only Levant force capable of keeping Iran at bay. Iran has strong control over Iraq and the Syrian regime, and as a result, both countries are a mess today. We Arabs can also see the brutality with which Iran's militias have fought the Sunni Muslim Arabs in Syria and Iraq, and how Iran has been trying to destabilize the peaceful kingdom of Bahrain. It is in our best interest to have Israel around as it would actually walk the walk when it comes to confronting Iran's ghoulish ambitions for controlling our region, which we cannot confront alone. And thus we might someday find ourselves in a direct open alliance with Israel to fight it.

At the same time, Arab Muslims in the region know that if, God forbid, Islamic State becomes stronger than it already is, Israel is the only party capable of stepping in and destroying or at least limiting their advances.

Some Arab governments already realize that Israel is a necessity. We might hate Israel -- we might curse it day and night -- but that does not mean our intellectuals and sane ones want it gone, as each area that Israel leaves falls under chaos, trouble and even Iranian influence, be it in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

Let's not get confused here -- we Arabs are most likely going to keep hating Israel and Jews for decades to come. Still, we may have reached the point where we publicly admit that Israel is a better partner than our so-called Muslim brothers in Iran, Syria or elsewhere.

After all, a strong Israel has never threatened us without a provocation, while Iran is burning up Syria, dismembering Lebanon and destabilizing Bahrain. Iran would also be threatening Saudi Arabia from Yemen, were it not for the tough and pragmatic Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who decided to lead the fight on Iran's militias there.

An Iranian expansion into Arab states would destroy us Arabs and severely damage American interests and national security. Israel is now the only sane regional power capable of stopping Iran. Iran knows this and thus has limited its harassment of both Arabs and the U.S.

If Israel were to disappear tomorrow, Iran would be in Jordan, Bahrain and even Kuwait the next morning.

We Arabs, along with some Americans, can demonize Israel all we want, but deep down we know we are lucky to have Israel around at such a critical time. We have to admit that, as much as we may not wish to do so.

American voters, taxpayers and legislators should also realize that supporting Israel means supporting the U.S.'s interests to the fullest.

Mudar Zahran is a Jordanian-Palestinian who resides in the U.K.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The New Political Clout of Orthodox Jews

Republican candidate Ted Cruz now studies the weekly Torah portion
The following article by Nathan Guttman appeared in the Forward today. Have we Orthodox Jews become a real force in politics - despite our tiny numbers?

Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have long appreciated the importance of tapping into the pool of Jewish donors, who are among the most generous political contributors in the nation.

But until recently, Orthodox Jews have been an elusive target.

Like their Democratic counterparts, Republican candidates chose to go after more secular — albeit more conservative — Jewish donors, many of whom were hawkish on Israel; a demographic embodied in the old-line Republican Jewish Coalition, founded in 1985.

But now, Republican hopefuls from the right end of their party’s spectrum are beginning to discover the potential of a separate new breed of Orthodox Jews — wealthy enough to make significant donations, secure enough to pronounce their conservative social preferences and fueled by their anger at the Democratic administration’s policy toward Israel.

The emergence of these new donors has moved libertarian-leaning candidate Rand Paul to take interest in the Talmud studies of yeshiva students; it has motivated Ted Cruz to read up on the weekly Torah portion, and it has sent Jeb Bush to a Modern Orthodox high school to celebrate Israel’s independence day. Outreach to the Orthodox community is no longer a novel idea in the Republican camp — it has become a must.

Tevi Troy, a former official in the administration of George W. Bush and a leading voice among Orthodox Republicans, described the dual attraction Orthodox donors have, especially to candidates on the right end of the Republicans’ already conservative spectrum: “Orthodox Jews like the story Republicans have to tell on Israel,” he said, “and at the same time they’re not frightened by the Republicans’ social agenda.”

Described by some as “Modern ultra-Orthodox,” these potential new donors and activists are, according to a longtime Orthodox political operative, typically “very successful in business, very prosperous, with a yeshiva background and deeply involved in public life.”

It’s a description that fits Richard “Kasriel” Roberts perfectly. Roberts, who is now viewed as the biggest Orthodox name in Republican political giving, lives in an ultra-Orthodox enclave of yeshivas and synagogues in Lakewood, New Jersey. In the previous presidential election cycle, he gave $750,000 to the pro-Romney super political action committee Restore Our Future and $1 million to Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, another Republican Super PAC. His total political giving in the 2012 elections exceeded $2 million.

This time around, Roberts has been spreading his support between the libertarian-leaning candidate Rand Paul and Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, a potential presidential candidate who has yet to declare his intentions.

In 2013, Roberts invited Paul to visit his home and a nearby yeshiva in Lakewood, and accompanied and funded the senator’s trip to Israel the same year. Paul’s views on Israel have been so cool that he was shunned by the RJC, but they have warmed considerably. As he toured the Lakewood yeshiva, Roberts described him as “real” and “authentic.”

On April 27, Roberts’s courtship with Paul continued at the offices of Torah Umesorah, an association of religiously right-leaning Orthodox day schools headquartered in Brooklyn. During a meeting with Paul that Roberts sponsored there, the GOP candidate focused almost exclusively on Israel and the Iranian nuclear deal. Only one participant asked about schools, an issue where Paul’s stand in favor of government-funded vouchers for private schools pleases many Torah Umesorah members.

“He was personable and funny,” said Jewish activist Yaacov Behrman, who attended the meeting. 

“His goal was to quash fears about his views on Israel.”

Roberts also supported Walker generously in 2012 and gave him another $10,000 in 2014. The Wisconsin governor, who famously faced down his state’s public employee unions, has had to work at learning his Jewish political vocabulary. As a Milwaukee County executive prior to becoming governor, he confused one of the most basic Jewish expressions with an incendiary device, wishing a state GOP official “Molotov” for the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. But his strong conservative credentials and his support for Israel have caught the eye of donors like Roberts.

Walker has also proposed radically boosting the role of private school vouchers in his state education budget, which would for the first time allow an unlimited number of students to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.

Roberts, who is a doctor, made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Since selling his company for $800 million in 2012, he divides his time between philanthropic activity in the local Orthodox community and campaign finance activism in Republican politics.

“Obviously I don’t come from the standard yeshivish background. I went to the yeshivas of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania,” Roberts joked in a videopromoting Lakewood. He called living in Lakewood a “wonderful privilege” that those who lived in an ultra-Orthodox environment all their life may not appreciate. “We certainly don’t want them going out into the secular world and seeing how bad things are in so many other places,” Roberts added.

Roberts did not respond to calls from the Forward.

Black yarmulke donors such as Roberts are no longer a rare sight in the Republican Party. For years, donors such as California venture capitalist Isaac “Yitz” Applebaum or telecom executive Howard Jonas were reliable mainstays from Modern Orthodox communities. Now, the push is on to register the more conservative elements of the Orthodox community.

Israel has served as a catalyst for these donors’ involvement in the GOP. But a sense of shared conservative values is providing an additional foundation. The mutual affinity on this front was highlighted April 27, when Agudath Israel of America, which represents large parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging justices not to allow same-sex marriage.

The battle over same-sex marriage has emerged as the main social issue uniting Orthodox Jews and conservative Republicans. For reasons tied to nuances in traditional Jewish religious law, the GOP’s emphasis on restricting abortion rights has resonated less with Orthodox Jews.

The Orthodox community is also not overly concerned about separation between religion and state, and actively supportive of social conservatives on issues such as government funding of parochial education.

There is one final factor in the growth of Orthodox givers: the growing affluence of some members of this community.

“Now, in 2015, you have more Orthodox individuals who are more affluent than in past years and more interested in being politically active,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

When it comes to voters, as distinct from donors, the Republicans’ stepped-up outreach to Orthodox supporters at first glance defies demographic reasoning. The Orthodox community, according to the 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, makes up only 10% of the Jewish community, which, in turn, represents a little more than 2% of American voters.

But these numbers tell only part of the story. Because of higher birth rates and stronger denominational retention, the Orthodox share in the Jewish community is on the rise, and among those under the age of 18 they represent 26% of American Jews.

Politically, Orthodox Jews have bucked the broader Jewish liberal trend and currently lean strongly to the right, with 57% identifying as Republican and more than half identifying as conservative. Among the ultra-Orthodox, almost two-thirds say they are conservative.

But the Orthodox role in Republican politics has been stifled in the past by demography and geography. The community was viewed as too small to have an impact; moreover, with most Orthodox Jews living in heavily Democratic districts, their voting Republican made little difference. For the Republican Party it was a question of priorities.

And for Orthodox Jews, especially those identified by their black hats and referred to as ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, political activism has traditionally been directed at local issues of immediate concern to their community: support for parochial education and for the social services on which many Haredi families depend. These interests led to strong communal ties to the mostly Democratic elected officials in their districts, regardless of broader political approaches.

But today, said Jeff Ballabon, a prominent Orthodox Republican activist, “it’s no longer only domestic concerns like school choice and

‘Orthodox Jews… will be very involved in shaping the [2016] Republican race.’
vouchers, but also protecting Israel.”

Recently, the broken relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the two leaders’ dispute over the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran made the stars align for Republicans and Orthodox supporters. The feeling that Israel is in dire need of a more supportive administration has driven members of the Orthodox community to step out of their comfort zone and back their already existing sympathy for Republican values with votes and major gifts.

“Orthodox Jews are growing as a segment in the Jewish community… I believe the community will be very involved in shaping the [2016] Republican race,” said Nick Muzin, deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz.

Muzin knows this well from his own experience. A doctor and lawyer by education, Muzin was born in Canada, where he attended top yeshivas in Toronto. He later attended Yeshiva University in New York. Muzin is the man behind Cruz’s full court press towards the Orthodox community. The Texas senator, who has been the most visible among the candidates in reaching out to Orthodox supporters, told Politico that he shares “a great many values with the Jewish community and the Orthodox community.”

Muzin, who spends much of his time on the road with Cruz, takes off for the Sabbath, during which he stays with local Jewish communities. Cruz, he said, always wants to know about the weekly Torah portion and tries to work it into his speeches. “He is a religious Christian and has an affinity to the Jewish community,” said Muzin, who described the candidate’s attitude toward the Jewish people as “a natural kinship.”

Ballabon, who identifies with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, believes that Orthodox Jews like himself should be at the center of the party’s outreach to Jewish voters and donors. “I want to be an agent of change in these elections, telling people that as much as they don’t want to admit it, partisanship regarding Israel is a long-standing reality and it’s a mistake to ignore it or whitewash it,” he said.

Though a bit behind Cruz and Paul, other players in the field are also now looking to this community for votes and cash. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is expected to announce his candidacy and who enjoys the backing of several key GOP Jewish establishment figures, visited New York’s prestigious Ramaz School, an Orthodox day school, to mark Israel’s independence day on April 23. In a closed-door question-and-answer session with the upper-school students, Bushcriticized the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration as “naive.”

For now, the battle within the GOP is focused on donors, with RJC donors tending to back politicians representing the party’s establishment, such as Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Orthodox donors leaning to candidates on the populist right, including Cruz and Paul.

Thanks to the relaxation of political funding regulations, and to the introduction of super PACs, even just one wealthy backer can play a game-changing role in sustaining a candidate through the grueling primary process.

Meanwhile, as voters, the role that Orthodox Jews can play is limited at this stage. “Clearly, Republicans are not investing in Orthodox Jews in order to win Iowa or New Hampshire,” Troy said, referring to the first two states to elect their candidates, both with insignificant numbers of Orthodox Jews.

But in the general election, the focus will likely shift. While the large majority of Orthodox Jews live in heavily Democratic states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, where their votes may have no impact on the outcome, there are two states where they might: Florida and Ohio.

This is not just Orthodox wishful thinking. Political observers in the community look to an analysis of the 2004 presidential election, when George W. Bush won the state of Ohio on his way to beating Democrat John Kerry. Looking through the voting records precinct by precinct, it was clear that Kerry lost because of weak support in the Cleveland suburbs. And within those suburbs, those with large Orthodox Jewish populations went clearly to Bush.