Good Monday morning!
White House senior advisor Jared Kushnerwill visit Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week in an attempt to resolve ongoing disputes between the two Gulf countries. White House Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and former special envoy on Iran Brian Hook will also join the trip.
The U.S. delegation’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman comes after reports of a clandestine meeting last week between the Saudi monarch and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which bin Salman reportedly backed away from an immediate normalization deal with Israel, instead opting to wait and potentially use such a deal as leverage with the incoming Biden administration.
Yesterday, Israel’s cabinet approved the transfer of tax funds to the Palestinian Authority as the two sides edge closer to fully restoring security cooperation.
Bahrain announced its plan to seek the presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Council, days before the deadline to submit an application to enter the hotly contested race.
The Biden transition announced an all-female press team, with former Obama White House Communications Director Jen Psaki as press secretary and longtime Biden aide Kate Bedingfield as communications director. Karine Jean-Pierre, who had been a contender for the press secretary role but came under fire for an op-ed last year calling AIPAC’s rhetoric “severely racist” and “Islamaphobic,” will be principal deputy press secretary.
Biden campaign economic advisor Jared Bernstein will join as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers and Neera Tanden will be nominated to head the Office of Management and Budget, the transition office also announced. Axiosreported on Sunday that former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are among the leading candidates for secretary of transportation.
This evening, the UJA-Federation of New York’s annual Wall Street Dinner is set to honor Apollo’s Marc Rowan and LionTree’s Aryeh Bourkoff. Bari Weiss will be the keynote speaker at the virtual gala.
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Driving the convo
Obama admin officials criticize the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
American and Israeli leaders remained mum over the weekend over the killing of top Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was shot at close range in an ambush on his motorcade in northern Iran on Friday. A U.S. official toldThe New York Times that Israel was behind the attack. The European Union condemned the killing, while the U.K. and Germany expressed concern it could lead to an escalation in the Middle East.
New details: Iranian journalist Mohamad Ahwaze reported that the mission was carried out by a team of 62 people, including a dozen highly-trained operatives. However, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News agency reported that Fakhrizadeh was hit by an automatic machine gun placed on a pickup truck and activated by remote after Fakhrizadeh exited his vehicle.
Why it matters: Fakhrizadeh was the head of the Iranian Ministry of Defense’s Amad project and the architect of the country’s nuclear program. He was reportedly on the Mossad’s target list for years, and was mentioned specifically by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a 2018 press conference on Iran’s nuclear program. In a tweet retweeted by President Donald Trump on Friday, veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Melman said Fakhrizadeh’s death “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.” Michael Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Trump administration, told the Times the assassination was “a setback to Iran’s nuclear program.”
What to expect: Already burdened by the strain of crippling financial sanctions, Iran is reportedly grappling over potential retaliation, given the possibility of sanctions relief under a Biden administration. A top advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that the regime will make a “calculated and decisive” response to the killing. Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem indicated that Tehran will probably launch a “limited attack” on Israel without taking the risk of activating its proxies in the region. Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, suggested that it is unlikely Iran will feel pressure to respond because Fakhrizadeh’s profile is not “in the same ballpark” of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force who was killed by U.S. forces last year, an act that prompted a retaliatory attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Israeli security officials expressed concern that Israeli tourists could be the target of terror attacks while visiting the Gulf.
Preempting Biden? Former Obama administration officials and senior Democrats, as well as some former IDF officials, accused both Israel and the Trump administration of working to complicate Biden’s much-discussed plan to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. In a tweet on Friday, former CIA director John Brennan called the killing “a criminal act and highly reckless.” Robert Malley, who served as the Obama administration’s point man on the Middle East at the National Security Council, suggested that the attack was part of a plan to “solidify” Trump’s legacy “and make it all the more difficult for [his] successor to resume diplomacy with Iran.” Former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes blasted the Fakhrizadeh killing on Friday, calling it “an outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming U.S. administration and Iran.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) suggested that “this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer.”
Double standard? Asked if former Obama officials should be critiquing moves made during the transition given the Obama administration’s 2016 decision not to veto a resolution at the U.N. criticizing Israel during the transition period, former U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross told Jewish Insider. “No one gets an absolute pass to do whatever they want during the transition. So criticism is fair — just as criticism of the Obama administration’s abstention on the UNSC resolution was warranted.”
Alternative argument: Ross, a distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served in the Carter, Reagan, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, maintained that “such an operation takes extensive planning, having operatives on the ground, actionable intelligence. It can’t be spur of the moment.” Ross added in an email that “if one wants to debate the logic of doing these kind[s] of targeted killings, that is totally appropriate. But saying this was done to derail what a Biden Administration will do simply ignores the reality of how these operations take place.” Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JI that Fakhrizadeh “didn’t just appear at the top of the Mossad target list because Joe Biden got elected. This operation would have occurred regardless of the U.S. election results because he was a first order threat to the survival and security of the state of Israel.”
Mutual interests: Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense from 2001-2004, suggested that a Biden administration would continue intelligence cooperation with Israel and support covert action against Iran. “After all is said and done, if the Israelis can cooperate with Arab countries on intelligence years before they even informally were public about it, then why shouldn’t the U.S. cooperate with Israel on intelligence when it’s in their mutual interest?” he explained in a recent interview with JI.
A new reality: New York Times columnist Tom Friedman writes that as Biden tries to navigate his way back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, he will face greater resistance from a coalition comprised of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE if he fails to build upon the Trump administration’s current leverage to ensure a more comprehensive agreement that addresses shortfalls in the original deal, including restrictions on ballistic missiles and Iran’s expansive terror network.
Teresa Leger Fernandez is bringing New Mexico values to the House
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Teresa Leger Fernandez, the incoming Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, was wondering aloud about the historical roots of a national holiday, the foundation of which has come to be viewed as something of a myth. “Thanksgiving really was a proclamation of George Washington,” Leger Fernandez said in an interview with Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel, noting that Washington’s edict was an instruction to give thanks to an almighty god rather than a friendly meal between Native Americans and English colonists. “I don’t know how it ended up turning into pilgrims.”
Correcting the record: For Leger Fernandez, a 61-year-old former lawyer, such questions have no doubt been on her mind as she is poised to represent a sizable population of Native American constituents, but with just over a month remaining until she assumes office the representative-elect is more acutely focused on curbing the coronavirus pandemic — the narrative around which, she said, has received its own form of whitewashing. “We had a presidency and a Republican Party that was undermining the public health messages,” Leger Fernandez said of the Trump administration’s slapdash effort to contain the virus, as well as some GOP figureheads who have brushed aside public safety guidelines.
Background: Leger Fernandez, who has never held elective office and is the first woman to represent her district, won a hard-fought battle in New Mexico’s June primary to advance to the general election. Her most formidable opponent was Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative who lives in Santa Fe but was dogged by accusations of antisemitism thanks in part to an old tweet linking to a white nationalist website. Plame apologized for posting the story and later joined a local synagogue, but Santa Fe’s tight-knit Jewish community coalesced behind Leger Fernandez, who went on to beat her Republican opponent by more than 17 percentage points in the general election.
DMFI and AOC: Leger Fernandez was endorsed by both Democratic Majority for Israel and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). In a March interview with JI, she resisted being characterized as part of the Squad and instead expressed a strong affinity for Deb Haaland, the Democratic congresswoman who represents New Mexico’s 1st district. Haaland, whose name has been floated as a possible interior secretary pick under Biden, brought years of experience in local politics and community organizing when she became one of the first Native Americans elected to Congress in 2018, and Leger Fernandez claims that she is in a similar position. “Many of the points I look at,” she said, “they may be called progressive, but many others are very rooted in community.”
First-term goals: The representative-elect, whose past work includes addressing voting rights and immigration issues, expressed interest in joining the House Judiciary Committee. Despite her experience on several key domestic concerns, Leger Fernandez is less attuned to foreign policy but plans to visit Israel during her first term in Congress to learn more about the Middle East. She supports President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and said she viewed Biden’s foreign policy team as encouraging for those who believe that he will usher in a new era of multilateral diplomacy. “Working collectively is how we address the multiple crises,” she said, “from nuclear nonproliferation to addressing global pandemics to addressing climate change.”
Court on High
Supreme Court blocks New York State restrictions on houses of worship
The Supreme Court temporarily struck down an order imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and challenged by Agudath Israel of America limiting the number of people who could convene for religious purposes in parts of the state with elevated COVID-19 rates. The 5-4 ruling saw newly installed Justice Amy Coney Barrett side with the majority and Chief Justice John Roberts with the minority. The unsigned per curiam decision to issue an emergency injunction cited the “strong showing” that the order violated the court’s established doctrine of neutrality towards religion. More than a dozen religious freedom cases across the country may be affected by the ruling in the coming weeks.
Vatican reaction: The ruling was praised by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, who called it a “good decision.” An op-ed published by Pope Francis the morning after the ruling criticized individuals and groups protesting social and travel restrictions. “Yet some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions,” the pope wrote, “as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!” DiMarzio praised the pope’s words — and noted that the church was arguing against the constitutionality of Cuomo’s order, not the ideology. “I don’t think those words of the pope really apply to us — this is not an ideological issue,” DiMarzio told The Associated Press.
Institutions weigh in: Agudath Israel of America, which challenged Cuomo’s order, called Wednesday’s ruling a “landmark vindication of religious rights,” noting that the decision reaffirmed “the bedrock American principle that religious freedom shall not be a second class right in the United States.” Orthodox Union President Mark Bane called the ruling “most welcome” and encouraged houses of worship to continue to follow health guidelines.
👴 Home Sweet Home: Longtime New York philanthropist Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder, explains to New York Times reporter Katherine Rosman why he will never leave his hometown in a wide-ranging interview that covered his love for the city’s institutions and his interest in the 2021 mayoral race, in which he’s backing Ray McGuire. “In New York, you have the cross section of everyone,” he said. [NYTimes]
👨💼 Driver’s Seat: In an interview with Politico, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming U.S. national security advisor, discussed his plan to reverse some of the Trump administration’s national security policies, his top priorities and how the Biden administration will seek to push its agenda in the event of a GOP-controlled Senate. [Politico]
Around the Web
💲 Closing In: Perella Weinberg Partners, the boutique bank founded in 2006, is in talks to merge with the SPAC started by Betsy Cohen, the 79-year old banking tycoon.
📝 File Claim: Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called on the Trump administration to release a report detailing the number of Palestinian refugees receiving aid from the UN Relief and Works Agency.
🛬 New Home: Rabbi Elie Abadie, who recently moved to the United Arab Emirates, toldThe New York Post he anticipates some 5,000 Jews will relocate there over the next three years amid warming relations between Israel and the Gulf nation.
😤 Talk of Our Nation: The nomination of Effie Eitam to head Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial has been met with pushback by historians, survivors and others concerned over Eitam’s right-wing political leanings.
🎪 Complying: Satmar community leaders announced the cancellation of an annual event commemorating former Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum’s escape from Bergen Belsen, following an outcry over a recent 15,000-person wedding that violated COVID-19 restrictions.
👨💻 Taking Action: A number of Facebook pages containing Holocaust denial content have not been taken down, despite the social media company’s pledge to crack down on antisemitic content across its platforms last month.
👮 Case Update: Toronto police said Friday that they have numerous leads in the murder case of Barry and Honey Sherman, Canadian philanthropists who were found dead in 2017.
🚔 Fighting Hate:A masked individual putting up swastika stickers in Fairfax, Calif., was confronted by a young man — and then arrested — in an incident that has since gone viral.
📣Across the Pond: U.K. Labour leader Keir Starmer denounced his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn for setting back the party’s recovery from antisemitism controversies in a virtual speech to the Jewish Labour Movement on Sunday.
👎 Under Fire: Hungarian ministerial commissioner and head of the Petofi Literary Museum in Budapest Szilard Demeter faced backlash and begrudgingly retracted an article after comparing billionaire George Soros to Adolf Hitler.
🔪 Hate Crime: A rabbi in Vienna was attacked on Thursday by a woman with a knife who reportedly kicked him and grabbed his yarmulke.
⛓️ Political Prisoner: A British-Australian academic detained for two years in Iran because her partner was Israeli was released from prison on Thursday.
⚖️ Justice Served: Norway will extradite Walid Abdulrahman Abu Zayed, accused of participating in a 1982 attack on a Jewish restaurant in Paris, to face charges in France.
📽️ Living history: In her new film “Ziyara,” showing at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, French-Moroccan director Simone Bitton explores the long history of Jews in North Africa.
🕯️Remembering: Former World Bank president and former Carnegie Hall chairman James Wolfensohn died at 86. Chicago-based journalist Jan Krawiec, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, died of complications from COVID-19 at 101.
Pic of the Day
Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram won a gold medal at the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Kyiv, Ukraine, yesterday.
DC-based real estate developer, Douglas Jemal turns 78…
Film producer, Letty Aronson turns 77… Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and film director, David Mamet turns 73… Actor, tenor and comedian, Mandel Bruce “Mandy” Patinkin turns 68… Former U.S. Treasury secretary and president of Harvard University, Larry Summers turns 66… Historian and author of nine books, mostly focused on the U.S. presidency, Michael Beschloss turns 65… National security correspondent for Reuters, Jonathan S. Landay turns 65… Award-winning author, journalist, and co-founder of Berkeleyside, Frances Dinkelspiel turns 61… Film and television producer, Stacey Sher turns 58… Actor, comedian and filmmaker, he has written, starred in and directed more than 50 films, Ben Stiller turns 55…
CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, William Daroff turns 52… Editor-in-chief at The Forward, Jodi Rudoren… Executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Gilad Kariv turns 47… Former model, actress and reality television star, then known as Kate Fischer, Tziporah Atarah Malkah turns 47… NYC-based CNN reporter covering law enforcement, Erica Orden turns 40… Retired basketball player, he won two NBA championships with the Lakers and played for two seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Jordan Farmar turns 34… Israeli tennis player, she won eight International Tennis Federation titles during her career, Evgenia Linetskaya turns 34… Student activist against gun violence, he is a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Ryan Deitsch turns 21… Steve Albert…