TOP TALKER: “Alan Gross Returns Home After 5 Years in Cuban Prison” by Philip Shishkin: “Smiling a big gap-toothed smile, a gaunt Alan Gross emerged from five years of Cuban imprisonment to become, in the space of a few hectic hours, an unwitting central figure in a historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana. The 65-year-old Jewish American, who had been helping Cuban synagogues with Internet access, mobile phones and computers, ran afoul of the Castro regime’s tight restrictions on the Cubans’ dealings with the outside world and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009. Mr. Gross first got wind of his impending freedom on Tuesday morning, when his lawyer Scott Gilbert called him in prison. The news forced Mr. Gross into a long silent pause, followed by these words: “I’ll believe it when I see it,” according an account provided by the Gross family spokeswoman.”
—FLIGHT HOME: “Mr. Gross boarded a U.S. government plane that had flown in to pick him up. Aboard were his wife and three U.S. congressmen. A bowl of popcorn, something he’d craved in jail, awaited him there, as well as other culinary reminders of home: a corn-beef sandwich on rye, and potato latkes with sour cream and apple sauce. At 8.45 a.m., the pilot announced that the plane had left Cuban airspace and was entering the U.S. airspace. Mr. Gross stood up and took a deep breath. He then phoned both of his daughters, and said “I’m free.” While still airborne, he received a call from President Barack Obama. After landing at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, Mr. Gross received a hug from Secretary of State John Kerry, who had flown in from elsewhere and happened to be there by coincidence, officials said.” [WSJ]
—MUST WATCH: Alan Gross begins his press conference… “Chag Sameach. Happy holiday season to all of you. Today is the first day of Hanukkah and, I guess, so far it’s the best Hanukkah that I’ll be celebrating.” [C-SPAN]
—President Obama’s Statement On Cuba [WhiteHouse] • “How Obama and Castro came together” [Politico] • “Like Iran, secret diplomacy leads to US-Cuba thaw” [AP] • “From joy to outrage, Florida’s Cuban-Americans greet new U.S. policy” [Reuters] • “In Miami, Astonishment Over Action and Disagreement Over Cuba News” [NYTimes] • “Obama haspower to further weaken Cuba sanctions” [Reuters] • Ros-Lehtinen & Rubio React [Video] • “Marco Rubio’s Havana moment” [Politico]
SCENE YESTERDAY: President and First Lady Obama hosted two separate White House Hanukkah parties yesterday. If you ask the President, each one is more prestigious than the other except he “really means it” at the second one. By our count, there were only two guests who attended both receptions. The first is Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who each year ensures the White House is kosher with a full buffet of fantastic latkes (Sheldon Adelson: don’t worry, they had plenty this year), succulent lamb chops, and unlimited sushi. The second was, Chicago lawyer, longtime supporter of the President, and past chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Alan Solow. White House Jewish Liaison Matt Nosanchuk and hisstaff, including Asher Mayerson, deserve much credit for accomplishing the difficult task of organizing these two events.
NOTABLE LINES FROM PRESIDENT OBAMA: “I want to begin with today’s wonderful news. I’m told that in the Jewish tradition, one of the great mitzvahs is ‘Pidyun Shivuim’. My hebrew’s not perfect, but I get points for trying. It describes the redemption, the freeing of captives. And that’s what we’re celebrating today because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free…. I spoke to him today on his flight. He said he was willing to interrupt his corn beef sandwich to talk with me. I told him he had mustard on his mustache (laughter). I couldn’t actually see him..”
(We apologize in advance to those JI readers who attended, but who were not spotted by us. In addition, the following list is in no particular order)
SPOTTED: Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley with Howard Friedman, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Emmy Rossum, Members of Congress Eliot Engel, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Brad Sherman, Sandy Levin, and Henry Waxman, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Jason Furman, Economic Advisor Jeff Zients, newly Senate-confirmed Ambassador David Saperstein, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein and Bob Sugarman, JFNA’sJerry Silverman and William Daroff, UJA’s Eric Goldstein, ADL’s Abe Foxman and incoming director Jonathan Greenblatt, Birthright’s David Fisher, OU’s Nathan Diament, Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Jewish Journal’s David Suissa, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, RabbiAngela Buchdahl, Rabbi Jack Moline, former White House Jewish Liaison Jarrod Bernstein, Stu Loeser, JTA’s Ron Kampeas, Ezra Friedlander, Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, Isaac K. Fisher, Josh Fidler, William Recant, Innovation Africa’s Sivan Ya’ari, Michael Paulson and Robin Pogrebin of the NYTimes, Aide to the First Lady Elyse Cohen, Dr. Adam Levine, Steve Rabinowitz, Aaron Keyak, Leon Wiesenltier, Jay Ruderman, Stanley Treitel, Rabbi David Wolpe, Nathan Lewin, Wayne Firestone, Dave Feinman, Andrew Weinstein, Gary Rosenblatt, Zev Brenner, Rob Bassin, Elliot Brandt, Eric Gallagher, Shea Rubenstein, Rabbis David Zwiebel and Abba Cohen from Agudath Israel, Chaskel Bennett, Leon Goldenberg, Abe Friedman, Gidon Feen, Yoel Lefkowitz, Yaacov Berman, Steven Rakitt,David Makovsky, and Melanie Nelkin.
OVERHEARD: “Obama: I’m Jewish ‘in my soul'” by David Suissa: “After the president made his Channukah remarks and the lighting ceremony was over, he came down to greet the thick crowd of guests along a receiving line… I came late to the waiting crowd, which means I ended up about four rows back. Here’s where my luck kicked in. There was an imposing and tall white-haired gentleman to my right who had a booming voice and was determined to say something to the President (I think he may have had a few single malts, but that’s another story.) So, when the president got closer to us, and I was prepared to launch my very tame, “Mr President, do you have a message you want to share with the Jews of Los Angeles?” line, THE MAN TO MY RIGHT launched the most brilliant Presidential Channukah greeting of all time: “Mr President,” he said in his booming voice, “when I told my Christian friend I was coming to a Channukah party at the White House, he told me, ‘I didn’t know the President was Jewish!” The President let out a serious belly laugh… It was clear that the “President was Jewish” idea had intrigued him. After about three or four seconds, as he was walking away, and looking at no one in particular, the President just said, “I am, in my soul.” [JewishJournal]
ALSO LAST NIGHT: Governor Chris Christie hosted a Hanukkah party at Drumthwacket, his official residence. [Picture]
FIRST LOOK: “Can Liberal Zionists Count On Hillary Clinton?” by Jason Horowitz in the New York Times Magazine: “Asked about her tough talk, liberal Zionists tend to blame the requirements of American presidential-campaign politics. A vast majority of Jews care far more about social issues and the economy than they do about the issue of Israel and will always vote for the Democratic candidate. “Democrats who are Jewish will turn out in droves in support of her,” Haim Saban, a media mogul and major Clinton-campaign financier told me. And the Jewish donors? “Without a doubt.” But Clinton knows that there is a wealthy and influential sliver of more-moderate Democratic Jews for whom Israel is a priority…”
“The political quandary for liberal Zionists is that, as part of the Jewish majority that will vote for Clinton regardless, they aren’t in a great position to make demands and are reduced to hoping that Clinton secretly agonizes over the issue as much as they do. Saban, the major Clinton-campaign financier, told me that Clinton was pained by the consequences of Israel’s actions, just not publicly. “I can tell you that privatelyshe has expressed empathy for the Palestinians,” he told me. “She has.”… Clinton’s return to campaign form has left liberal Zionists with little choice other than rationalization. “I sense that the people who advise Hillary Clinton on Jewish politics came of age in an era when the rules of the game were different,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, told me, suggesting that the time of reflexive support for Israel, regardless of their government’s policies, had ended. When I asked if he could persuade Clinton that such a position was no longer tenable, he answered, not so convincingly, “We definitely need to try.” [NYTimesMag]
“Palestinians Make Strides Toward Draft Resolution at U.N.” by Somini Sengupta: “After a day of intense lobbying, the Palestinians persuaded their fellow Arab diplomats here to support a draft Security Council resolution that sets a one-year deadline for negotiations with Israel and is aimed at the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank. The draft measure was formally shared with the 15 members of the Security Council, with language that sets down targets for Palestinian sovereignty, including land swaps, a shared capital in Jerusalem and “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” by the end of 2017.” [NYTimes] • “Palestinian UN bid a declaration of war, minister charges” [ToI]
ISRAELEX: “Isaac Herzog, from sweet Manhattan schoolboy to Israel’s next prime minister?” by Debra Nussbaum Cohen: “Soon after he was first elected to the Knesset, in 2003, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog said he liked to see himself as “carrying the torch” for Israel’s Anglo community. That torch may first have been lit during his days as a Ramaz high school student in New York City, where he left a strong impression and formed relationships that continue to this day. Herzog, 54, began as a sophomore at the modern Orthodox high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when his father was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.” [Haaretz] • “The ‘Brotastic’ Naftali Bennet” [Forward]
TOP-OP: Barak Ravid on Netanyahu: “While rebuking Europe’s states, Netanyahu yesterday praised the United States’ friendship. He believes his Republican allies in Congress, AIPAC and the various Jewish organizations, as well President Obama’s being in his last two years in office, will ensure him quiet and, more than anything, the continued American veto in the UN Security Council. Obama’s dramatic announcement Wednesday about renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years should be a warning sign to Netanyahu that his analysis is wrong. Obama has shown that when he is almost completely unfettered by political constraints, he has no problem clashing with the powerful Cuban lobby and throwing America’s failed embargo policy into history’s dustbin. Obama may do the same when it comes to the Palestinians. He can lock horns with the pro-Israel lobby and repudiate the veto policy and the diplomatic protection the United States has given the Israeli occupation and the West Bank settlements in the last 47 years. If this happens, even talking about the Six Million won’t convince anyone.”[Haaretz]
BUSINESS BRIEFS: “Sam Nazarian gives up control of Las Vegas hotel” by Charles Fleming and Hugo Martin: “Sam Nazarian made his name and his billion-dollar fortune creating L.A. clubs and restaurants that attracted the hippest young celebrities. He parlayed that fame into hotels in Beverly Hills and Miami’s South Beach. This year, he looked to Las Vegas as the next step in a bold global expansion, opening the 1,600-room SLS Las Vegas hotel and casino in August. Then he ran into the Nevada Gaming Control Board. The board’s routine vetting of Nazarian, who applied for a gaming license, has now thrown his Vegas plans into disarray. Investigators unearthed recent cocaine use — along with about $3 million in payments to a felon with convictions for drug possession and money laundering. Some of the money was paid to a convicted racketeer and Death Row Records founder Suge Knight. Nazarian characterized the payments as extortion. On Tuesday, he relinquished all control of his Las Vegas hotel to his principal investor, Stockbridge Capital.” [LA Times] • Nazarian’s Girlfriend Posted Pictures Of The Two Celebrating Hanukkah [Instagram] • “Investors remain loyal to Nazarian” [LA Times]
REAL ESTATE ROUNDUP: “Larry Silverstein Feels ‘Pretty Damn Good’ About Lower Manhattan” [Observer] • Bruce Ratner’s Affordable Brooklyn becoming a reality [REW] • Alex Sapir to buy the Mondrian Soho [RealDeal] • “Developer sues city for $50M over affordable housing plans” [DailyNews]
STARTUP NATION: “Silicon Israel? Startups look to expand Israeli tech sector” by Christopher Snyder: “Cooperation with the U.S. is seen as a driving force behind the boost in exports. Jonathan Medved says he is co-investing with several American companies in the auto and telecommunications industries, among others, on new development projects. “It’s all about this cooperation with the U.S. and Israel … it’s about our attitude towards risk, Israelis are risk-takers … the sense that here in Israel, we believe creation is important. We are all partners with God, world was not created as a fixed entity in six days, it’s up to man to complete the work and that is sort of the ethos that informs a lot of [people] in Israeli high-tech,” he said. Medved is optimistic about the future of the high-tech industry overall. “To be an investor in technology, there are going to be bumps along the road. Things are going to go down and back up but in the long term it’s going [up] and the beauty here is Israel and America together can’t be beat.” [FoxNews]
RULES OF DONATIONS: “Rules of engagement vary for Americans aiding IDF soldiers” by Uriel Heilman: “Sending U.S. Jewish aid to Israeli soldiers can be a touchy subject. U.S. law bars sending weapons or combat equipment to foreign armies without U.S. government authorization, and the Israel Defense Forces has rules about what sort of material soldiers are permitted to accept from outside groups (for example, soldiers may wear only IDF-issued boots). The IDF, which declined to be interviewed for this story, also does not want to be seen as a charity case… The biggest and best known of the IDF support groups is FIDF, a $70-million-a-year organization with chapters throughout the United States.”[ToI] • “‘Mossad spy’ headed Nasrallah’s security” [YNet]
DESSERT: “The 5 Best Hanukkah Song Spoofs” [NYPost]
That’s all folks; have a great day!