KAFE KNESSET — Election Day Is Here — by Neri Zilber: The citizens of Israel go to the polls today. The contentious campaign just passed has nearly seen it all: a dramatic Christmas Eve dissolution of the government, the Attorney General’s decision to indict the incumbent for corruption, the entry onto the scene — and rise — of a neophyte former army commander, the last-minute merger of said neophyte with an opposition rival, a military escalation in Gaza, Trump and Putin, Iranian hackers and Kahanists, endless recriminations and viral videos. At the end of this long road stand two men offering the country a binary choice for the best path forward: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Read today’s entire Kafe Knesset newsletter by subscribing here [KafeKnesset]
SIGNIFICANT STAKES — The stakes are high in today’s election in Israel, and not just for Israelis. Observers recognize the importance of how its result will play with Americans and American Jews. There is consensus that should Gantz find a way to win, he is unlikely to veer far from Netanyahu’s policy approach — especially on matters of security and diplomacy. But to many stateside, a new mainstream prime minister could present a fresh slate and opportunity to re-energize support for Israel.
NEVER-NETANYAHUS — That’s one reason why leading mainstream journalists Bret Stephens and Yair Rosenberg have argued in recent days that Israelis should not back Netanyahu for another term.
THE GREAT GAP — And yet, as Emma Green points out in The Atlantic, the anxiety among American Jews about the status quo and another Netanyahu term is not one that many Israelis tend to care for.
A DIASPORA DIVIDED — Green details three categories of American Jews: the self-described pro-Israel crowd on the right, the activists on the left skeptical of the Israeli government, and the AIPAC or American Jews in the middle. The right would be pleased with another Netanyahu term, the left will remain critical almost regardless of who wins — but many in the middle would welcome a fresh face.
THE EXPERTS — We bumped into former U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiroon Rothschild Boulevard this morning who told us that “if Gantz wins, it may be a chance for everyone to do a reset.”
However, Shapiro also cautioned that, “if Netanyahu prevails, both he and Democrats, whatever their views of each other, should find ways of engaging one another respectfully. That doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything. It does mean they shouldn’t let Trump’s chest-thumping set the tone of the relationship.”
Shapiro continued: “But make no mistake: no Democrat will be able to avoid expressing profound disagreement with any moves by Palestinians, the Trump administration, or Israel — like annexing parts of the West Bank — that harm U.S. interests by pushing the two-state solution further out of reach. That includes those Democrats who might become president in 2021.”
Elliott Abrams issues a challenge to Netanyahu — In an email to Jewish Insider, the conservative foreign policy advisor to several Republican presidents urged Netanyahu to work with Democrats to fix the damage: “If Bibi remains prime minister, a serious responsibility falls on him and on Democrats in Congress to repair the damage to their relationship. He should reach out directly to top Democrats immediately to say the damage that has been done must be repaired not deepened. And they should be quite open to that possibility, not resentful that Israeli voters ‘voted wrong’ from their point of view. It is possible to think of relations between Netanyahu and the Democrats getting worse, and that would be a disaster — among other things feeding the anti-Israel forces in the party. So Netanyahu, Pelosi, Hoyer, Schumer, and others really have to join hands and prevent that before it starts.”
AN ELECTION LIKE ANY OTHER — “What happens in Israel is much more important to the future of Israelis and their state than to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which will endure regardless of who’s elected,” the Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller told Jewish Insider. “Still, in the past decade or so, the bipartisanship that has been the driving force of the relationship has come under greater stress and pressure – partly as a result of the partisanship in U.S. politics that predated both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, but willfully encouraged in the last two years by them as well.”
Miller added: “I have long maintained that when the image of Israel changes in the mind of America, the special character of the U.S.-Israeli relationship will change as well. And that positive image is based not just on hard interests but on softer values as well. There’s little doubt that the Netanyahu years have undermined that value affinity not just with regard to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians; but have stressed Israel’s democratic character, values and practices as well. Whether a Gantz victory would succeed in reversing this trend is uncertain. But as the old saying goes – when you’re in a hole the first order of business is to stop digging. With Netanyahu’s talk of annexation, more settlements, and the courting of the hard right that hole is almost certainly going to get deeper.”
POLICIES > PEOPLE — The policies of the next government will also play a factor in the future of the U.S-Israel relationship, according to Amb. Dennis Ross. If Netanyahu wins, forms a narrow right-wing government, and actually acts on his pledge of applying Israeli law on all settlements in the West Bank, “the ability to preserve separation of Israel from the Palestinians as an option could well be lost, leading to the possibility of the Palestinians demanding equal rights in a one state situation, Ross told JI via email. “In the U.S., especially among Democrats, progressives, and the younger Jewish demographic, there will be increased alienation as a result, a sense that Israel does not reflect their values, and it will be increasingly difficult to preserve Israel as a bipartisan issue.”
IPF’s Susie Gelman: “While a Gantz victory would signal a new way forward, it would not eliminate the pressure to move towards annexation. The right has been emboldened by previous moves by the U.S. administration, and any Trump peace plan that includes generous territorial provisions for Israel will build pressure on Gantz to accede to demands for annexation of the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. Meanwhile, younger, pro-annexation right-wing politicians like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked are positioning themselves for a post-Netanyahu political reality and have many decades left in their careers. They will not give up on annexation just because Gantz wins.”
“If Bibi wins and proceeds to allow annexation bills to be debated on the floor of the Knesset — something he prevented as recently as last summer — I would anticipate that the Republicans will support his efforts and continue to use Israel as a wedge issue in an attempt to siphon off Jewish voters from the Democratic Party. I am confident that the Democratic Party will do everything in its power to prevent erosion of support for Israel, but annexation would present a real challenge, not to mention what it could portend for the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.”
Washington Institute’s David Makovsky echoed the same sentiment: “The debate in Israel is not anymore between left and right, but it’s between center and right, and neither side believes you could have a Palestinian state tomorrow. The question is, do you want to leave the door open for these two entities to work things out or do you want to basically close that door and create a Bosnia-like situation. To me, that will impact the U.S.-Israel relationship. Maybe it won’t impact that immediately, but certainly over time. We’re already seeing a reduction in bipartisanship support for Israel in this polarized era we’re living in, and I am worried that if the right pushes Netanyahu to annex that will grow.”
Professor Eugene Kontorovich: “The driving factors of the U.S.-Israel relationship have little to do with the particulars of Israeli leadership. Obama consciously drove the relationship one way, Trump is driving it the opposite way, and neither was in response to particular actions of Israel. These trends will continue regardless of who is the Israeli PM. Blaming Netanyahu for it is convenient for the Democrats. It would be amusing to see how fast Gantz’s honeymoon ends when he pursues largely the same policies — recognizing the lack of any Palestinian partner; an unwillingness to uproot Jewish communities; opposition to the Iran deal; and a recognition that BDS is deeply anti-Semitic. Even with Ganz, the new argument would be that it will take a decade to ‘repair the damage’ from a decade of Bibi.”
Alan Abbey, Director of Media and Internet at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem: “Whatever happens today may only be the opening gambit in the process of picking a new government. A Gantz-Netanyahu or even Netanyahu-Gantz government wouldn’t surprise me. So the chances of a clean slate are slim. Even a Likud-led government may tack back to a more centrist position, depending on the way political winds blows.”
VIEW FROM PROGRESSIVES ON CAPITOL HILL — Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) tells JI’s Laura Kelly: “I usually don’t comment on the internal elections of other countries but I do hope that whoever is elected will be a sincere partner on a two-state solution and a framework for peace that I think was best articulated, in recent cases, by the Obama administration.”
Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN), asked by JI if she’s following the Israeli elections at all, replied, “No, I am not.”
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI): “I’ve been concerned in watching the rightward shift that Mr. Netanyahu’s done, building a coalition that clearly has extreme factions that I don’t think will help us towards peace in the region. Those of us who care about a two-state solution, we want to see that happen. I think that actually makes it harder to get where we want to. Then I saw his comments about annexing, that made us nervous too. My goal is to make sure we don’t have American bodies ever having to go over there and coming back unfortunately in body bags. Obviously, Israel is a tremendous ally, but a lot of those policies aren’t working towards, as I see it, peace in the region. So we’ll see what happens with the election and go from there. Hopefully the rhetoric goes down post-election, if Mr. Netanyahu is successful again, and that there’s a distancing of the more right-wing elements.”
Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA): “Regardless of which party wins more seats on Tuesday, our relationship with Israel must remain strong and secure. And whatever the results, I hope to see a renewed, bipartisan commitment to a peace process and two-state solution — and, ultimately, a more secure Israel as a result.”
VIEW FROM IOWA — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told NBC Newsfollowing a town hall in Malcom, Iowa that he hopes Netanyahu loses his reelection bid. “When election time comes in Israel, he always tries going even further to the right by appealing to racism within Israel, I think it’s unfortunate,” Sanders said. “I’m not a great fan of his, and, frankly, I hope he loses his election.”
BRIEFS — Netanyahu’s media blitz is a ‘super-gevalt’ campaign this time, David Horovitz writes… Netanyahu brought nationalism to the 21st century… Israel’s elections are about one question – Do we still want Netanyahu?… The future of the two-state solution is at stake, writes Ilan Goldenberg… The Palestinian issue used to be a major factor in Israeli elections. Here’s why it hasn’t been this time…
Shalom Lipner writes… “Whether Israel annexes the West Bank could be up to Trump, not Netanyahu: If the president comes out forcefully against annexation, Netanyahu can report unhesitatingly to Israelis that his hands are tied. But if Trump appears to consent to Israel annexing the West Bank — a break with decades of U.S. policy — that would force Netanyahu to choose between feeding his coalition’s appetite or risking the survival of his government. (Facing potential indictment, he’ll probably be predisposed toward the former.)” [WashPost]
ULTIMATE DEAL WATCH — President Trump’s Mideast peace plan will be unveiled by mid-June, White House sources told Ch. 13 news. The date will depend on a number of factors, including the outcome of Israel’s general elections, and the next prime minister’s progress in forming a governing coalition.
Gantz said in an interview with Tal Shalev on Walla News TV that he hopes the Trump administration will delay the peace plan rollout if he is tasked with forming a government. “I expect the American administration to see that I won the elections, and to hold off with their plans until I can form a government,” Gantz said. “After that, we can sit down and discuss the plan in an organized and orderly way.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s adviser Nabil Shaath tells Bloomberg News that the Palestinian Authority won’t reject the Trump peace plan out of hand, but doesn’t expect it will be acceptable. “There is nothing left really to dream of except that maybe if we accept to give up everything, then maybe they will give us a little bit of money,” he said. “We are not going to sell out our country for his money.”
Former Ambassador Dan Kurtzer tells the NYTimes, “What we’re watching in terms of American policy is a shell game. They want you to watch the peace plan — it’s 40 pages long; it’s 60 pages long. What they don’t want you to watch is how they are trying extraordinarily hard, under cover of the plan, to change things on the ground.”
SCOOP — Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is in D.C. this week to promote the economic battle against Israel. According to Congressional sources, Barghouti is seeking meetings on Capitol Hill.
Barghouti will also participate on Thursday in two panels at the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C. The first event, co-sponsored by the Foundation for Middle East Peace and NYU-Washington, D.C., is billed as a “candid conversation about the BDS movement” between Barghouti and Peter Beinart. The other event, later in the day, is co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – D.C. Metro chapter. [JewishInsider]
DRIVING THE CONVO — The Trump administration announced on Monday the official designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, placing sanctions on the military body embedded within the Iranian regime. The official designation is expected to take effect next week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, and foreign governments and individuals are on notice that any dealings with the Iranian government are expected to be under threat because of the IRGC’s deep involvement and can be prosecuted under U.S. penal codes.
On Twitter, Israeli PM Netanyahu said the move “serves the interests of our countries and of countries in the region,” and warmly thanked Trump for “acceding to another one of my important requests.”
U.S. officials had been divided over the move to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, according to the Wall Street Journal, with White House national security adviser John Bolton and Pompeo in favor of it and Pentagon officials including Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioning against it out of concern for a backlash against U.S. forces.
The announcement makes it more difficult for any future U.S. administration to re-enter such a deal, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (RDD) told Jewish Insider. “You can’t just push this away, wipe this way with a re-entry into the nuclear deal. It’s going to create a higher bar for anyone trying to provide some financial relief to Iran if that day comes to pass,” he said. [JewishInsider]
Wendy Sherman, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and chief U.S. negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal, told the NYTimes that the Obama administration considered designating the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization, but decided against it because there would be no practical payoff given the risks to Americans and the fact the group was already under other sanctions. “By designating a foreign military as a foreign terrorist organization, we were putting our troops at risk, particularly our troops in Iraq, next door to Iran,” she said.
Trump Offers Clarity on Iran’s Terrorist Aims — by Eli Lake: “A progressive group chaired by alumni of the Obama administration… say it’s an effort to deter investment in Iran and possibly provoke the Iranians into breaking the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, with which they have largely abided since Trump vacated the deal nearly a year ago. Some see this objection as a point in Trump’s favor. ‘It makes it much more difficult for a Democratic president to go back into the Iran deal in 2021,’ says Mark Dubowitz, who favors the designation. Any future administration would have to make a determination that the IRGC was out of the terrorism business.” [Bloomberg] • Wall Street Journal editorial board: Labeling the IRGC a terrorist organization is simple truth-telling [WSJ]
REPORT — U.S. Still Permitting Iran to Engage in Sensitive Nuke Work at Onetime Weapons Sites — by Adam Kredo: “The State Department has quietly permitted Tehran to continue conducting sensitive nuclear work, including at a secretive military site that once housed the Islamic Republic’s weapons program, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demand that all such work cease last year.” [FreeBeacon]
Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook writes… “Iran Should Reconcile With America: The peoples of the United States and Iran should have diplomatic ties. We can foresee a new American Embassy in Tehran issuing visas to tourists, business travelers, and teachers. There should also be direct flights from Tehran to New York or Los Angeles. Before the revolution, America was Iran’s second-largest trading partner. It should be again.”[NYTimes]
On the Hill by JI’s Laura Kelly: Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) will introduce a resolution addressing deadly white supremacist attacks against Jewish and Muslim communities that are fueled by anti-immigrant propaganda, a spokeswoman for the Congressman said. It will also condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric by leaders.
The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing with Google and Facebook executives on hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism at 10 AM EST. The hearing will “foster ideas about what social media companies can do to stem white nationalist propaganda and hate speech online,” according to a description from the committee. [Livestream]
Other witnesses at the hearing will include Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Eileen Hershenov, senior vice president of policy at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), among others.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted: “This is going to be tough for the family because the GOP are calling ZOA’s Mort Klein & conservative Candace Owens to testify at the same hearing. Both have elevated hate rhetoric and extremism in our country.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) responded: “As for the other 100% of the story, Mort is a Jew, born in a German camp to Holocaust survivors, dedicated to ensuring this never happens again. He’s outspoken against Hamas using women and children as human shields, the PA’s ‘pay to slay’ policies and more that Tlaib eagerly empowers.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) defended the Democratic leadership’s handling of the watered-down resolution to condemn Rep. Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic remarks last month in an interview with USA Today. “I think we came out very strong,” Pelosi said, adding that listening to all members was a positive, despite the time it takes.
2020 WATCH — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) quiets his critics as he becomesa 2020 front-runner… Poll: Joe Biden tops Democratic field after rough week… Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) told The Atlantic that his own battle with cancer helped persuade him to run in 2020, and to lean in on talking about health care… Inside Trump’s all-about-that-base 2020 strategy…
Conservative street filmmaker Ami Horowitz shared his experience with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio on a flight from Vegas to NYC on Monday. “I sat next to Bill de Blasio on a flight from Vegas (in coach). Instead of putting on headphones and ignoring me, we had a wide-ranging and engaging conversation for several hours,” he posted. Horowitz told a follower on Twitter that they discussed “the cancer of antisemitism that has infected the Democratic Party.” [Pic]
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BUSINESS BRIEFS: Wynn makes play for James Packer’s casino group[TheGuardian] • Dan Loeb Can Walk His Way to Victory at Sony[Bloomberg] • Mark Ein’s Capitol Investment Corp. IV to buy Nesco[Bizjournals]
SPOTLIGHT — A Middle Eastern-Studies Professor on His Conversations with Mohammed Bin Salman — by Isaac Chotiner: “Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, is one of the most prominent commentators on modern Saudi Arabia. Haykel has met MBS, communicated with him via WhatsApp, and voiced support for the crown prince’s agenda, which includes economic reform and ending the ban on women driving. He also said, of his political talents, ‘I mean, he makes you feel like you’re the center of his universe when he’s speaking to you, which is a kind of a trait that I think you’re born with.'” [NewYorker]
MEDIA WATCH — The history of the Forward is a parable of Jewish-American life: “Even as the Yiddish readership aged and the Russian edition was sold in 2004, the Forward soldiered on. But paper is expensive, the industry is changing and everything must end: the last print copies will roll off the presses in April or May… This does not mark the end of the Yiddish press: Di Tzeitung is published weekly in Brooklyn and caters to Hasidim, many of whom still reserve Hebrew for liturgy as their ancestors did, and wish to hold the secular American world at bay. Nor, even, does it mark the end of the Forward, which will continue as an online publication in both English and Yiddish. The business, says its publisher, Rachel Fishman Feddersen, remains ‘on firm financial footing,’ committed to its mission ‘to create the best independent journalism and protect the Jewish-American soul.'” [Economist]
EUROVISION 2019 — Madonna to perform at Eurovision in Tel Aviv — by Amy Spiro: “Madonna will perform live at the Eurovision grand finale in Tel Aviv on May 18… The cost of bringing the international superstar to Israel will be covered by Israeli-Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams. Live Nation, who worked to confirm Madonna’s participation, said the singer will perform two songs at the Eurovision, including one from her upcoming album.” [JPost]
TALK OF THE NATION — Spread of Measles Accelerates, With U.S. Cases Rising to 465 So Far This Year — by Betsy McKay, Melanie Grayce West and Brianna Abbott: “The number of measles cases that have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of the year has jumped to 465 from 387 the previous week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday. That is the largest weekly increase in U.S. cases in 2019, the CDC said. Most of the cases involve children, the agency said. And though the cases span 19 states, many are tied to an outbreak among Orthodox Jews in New York City.” [WSJ]
DESSERT — Making NYC’s Largest Kosher Steakhouse Michelin: “Reserve Cut recently announced their newest addition to the kitchen — Michelin-Starred Chef Richard Farnabe who joins owner, Albert Allaham, with the determination to make the beloved restaurant the first kosher restaurant in the U.S. with a Michelin-starred chef… Farnabe joined the Reserve Cut team with a commitment to “make kosher Michelin” and is looking forward to raising the standard of presentation and service to transform Reserve Cut to a Michelin experience.” [Food&Beverage]
BIRTHDAYS: President of CNN Worldwide since 2013 and now also chairman of Warner Media News and Sports, Jeffrey Adam “Jeff” Zuckerturns 54… Retired singer-songwriter, satirist and mathematician, Thomas Andrew “Tom” Lehrer turns 91… Board certified internist, he is a consultant at the Disney Family Cancer Center at St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank, California, Lester S. Garfinkel, MD turns 84… President emeritus of the Duberstein Group, a government relations and lobbying firm in Washington, and a prominent Democratic party activist, Michael S. Berman turns 80… Retired fighter pilot and brigadier general in the Israeli Air Force, credited with 7.5 enemy fighter jets shot down, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest-ever and longest serving combat pilot, Uri Gil turns 76… EVP of real estate and business development at nationwide homebuilder KB Home, vice-chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, previously a partner at Sidley & Austin, Albert Zane Praw turns 71… Gail T. Kritz turns 67… Fashion designer for his own world-wide chain of eponymous stores, he was previously the creative director for Louis Vuitton (1997-2014), Marc Jacobsturns 56…
Visual artist, performance artist and co-founder of the arts ensemble Processional Arts Workshop, known for his creation of the large-scale puppet performance works, Alex Kahn turns 52… Attorney, author, political commentator, movie critic and blogger, Debbie Schlussel turns 50… Senior program manager in marketing operations at Freddie Mac, Jill Gershenson-Cohen turns 42… VP of public affairs and communications at Marathon Strategies, he was previously an advisor to New York governors Spitzer and Paterson, Ross M. Wallenstein turns 41… Actress and writer best known as the model for the RGX body spray commercials, Rachel Sarah Specter turns 39… Israeli actress who has appeared in Israeli films, Italian films and US television programs, Moran Atias turns 38… Film, television and stage actress, Lili Mirojnick turns 35… San Francisco-based associate at Bertram Capital, she is also on the board of directors of the Duo Collective, Soraya Hoberman turns 28… Figure skater, she competed for Israel at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea in pairs skating and a team event, Paige Conners turns 19… Jonathan Bollag… Herbert Levine…