👋 Good Monday morning!
In today’s Daily Kickoff, we talk to Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) about his approach to the Middle East, and report on a call from the head of the American Foreign Service Association for Foggy Bottom to oust a white supremacist blogger. Also in today’s Daily Kickoff: Sarah Wildman, Jason Greenblatt and Sam Altman.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken will address AIPAC this morning in Washington, a day before heading to Saudi Arabia for a series of high-level meetings, including a ministerial meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council members and a separate meeting of countries fighting the Islamic State. The AIPAC speech marks Blinken’s first address to the group since becoming Washington’s top diplomat.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim told reporters on Friday that while in Riyadh, Blinken will seek “opportunities short of formal diplomatic normalization to pursue progress” on Israel-Saudi relations. Among the issues expected to be discussed, individuals familiar with the trip’s itinerary told us, are possible direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslims making the annual hajj pilgrimage. Saudi officials have also proposed a U.S.-Saudi joint initiative to build Riyadh’s civilian nuclear program, dubbing it a “nuclear Aramco” — a nod to the Saudi oil project that began nearly a century again with a partnership with Standard Oil of California, now known as Chevron.
Ahead of Blinken’s trip and following a meeting yesterday with OPEC+, Saudi Arabia said it plans to cut its oil production by 1 billion barrels a day.
Blinken’s trip comes days after Iran announced plans to create a joint naval force with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, India and Pakistan, and nearly three months after Riyadh and Tehran reestablished relations in a deal brokered by China. Such a task force “defies reason,” a spokesperson for the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces said, noting that Iran remains “the No. 1 cause of regional instability.”
Tehran’s announcement follows the departure of the UAE from a U.S.-led maritime force policing the Gulf and comes as Iran has increased its activities, including the seizure of several oil tankers, in the region. But in a meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Emirati National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan over the weekend, the parties reiterated the “strategic partnership” between Washington and Abu Dhabi.
The Israeli presence in New York City over the weekend was impossible to ignore, as tens of thousands of people turned out for the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, which included the presence of Israeli lawmakers who back the judicial reform proposals. The weekend’s events at times turned heated, with one encounter between MK Simcha Rothman and protestors — in which the Religious Zionism official was filmed grabbing a megaphone from a demonstrator — going viral.
And in a stunning sports upset, Israel’s under-20 World Cup team defeated soccer powerhouse Brazil, 3-2, in overtime on Saturday. This year was the first time the Israeli squad qualified for the junior World Cup competition. Israel will play Uruguay in the semifinal on Thursday.
freshman in focus
Lawler centers Abraham Accords in approach to Middle East, antisemitism
In his first six months on Capitol Hill, freshman Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) has established himself as a lawmaker to watch on Israel and antisemitism policy. In just the past week, Lawler has spearheaded pieces of legislation that aim to clamp down on antisemitism on college campuses — a response to a recent incident at the City University of New York — and expand oil sanctions on Iran. In an interview with Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod in his Capitol Hill office, Lawler tied his work to his “very good relationship” with Jewish voters across the religious spectrum in his district, rising rates of antisemitism in New York in particular and his own personal convictions.
Speaking out: “Nobody should ever be [a] victim to discrimination or hatred or violence because of who they are or what they believe,” Lawler said. “As a practicing Catholic, I believe very strongly in the principle of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ And I think the objective, of course, is to really make sure that as a government that we’re doing right by people and communities, and that we are making laws that protect people.”
Normalization focus: The freshman Republican, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that expanding the circle of normalization will be key to checking Iran’s advances and its nuclear program, in addition to continued military support for Israel. “With our allies in the region, [we] really need to continue to build relationships to prevent it. That’s why the Saudis are critical, and why the Abraham Accords are so important,” Lawler said. “The more that the relationship between Israel and Arab-majority nations [is] normalized, and there are stronger economic ties and stronger national security ties, I think it really helps isolate Iran in the way that they should be.” Lawler also predicted that the Abraham Accords will be “pivotal” in moving toward an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Read the full story here.
U.S. diplomat with antisemitic, racist blog ‘cannot continue to serve’: Foreign Service union president
The president of the Foreign Service union called last week for the firing of Fritz Berggren, an American Foreign Service officer who publishes a racist and antisemitic blog that promotes white nationalism. “There has to be an understanding that someone like this cannot continue to serve the United States in an official capacity,” Ambassador Eric Rubin, a senior career diplomat who is the president of the American Foreign Service Association and previously served as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, told Jewish Insider’s Gabby Deutch in an interview.
Online persona: Berggren, who has worked with Afghan immigrants and in Bahrain, operates a website called BloodAndFaith.com that routinely posts vicious screeds against Jews, Blacks, members of the LGBTQ community and other minorities. He is still employed at the State Department, although it is not clear what his current position is. A State Department spokesperson said in April that they “cannot comment on individual personnel matters” but confirmed that he was still employed at State.
Employee anger: The case has for years frustrated rank-and-file Foreign Service officers, particularly at a time when the State Department and the Biden administration have repeatedly expressed a commitment to diversity and to protecting federal employees who come from marginalized communities.
Direct threat: “If we’re talking about caring about respect for diversity and all that, we can’t have people expressing views like Fritz Berggren has expressed that are a very direct threat to his fellow employees,” said Rubin, who is Jewish. In August 2021 more than 70 Jewish diplomats wrote a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken demanding that Berggren be fired, and many continue to bring up the issue privately with Rubin.
Bipartisan group of lawmakers urge expanding Abraham Accords into Africa
The Abraham Accords could form a central part of the U.S. strategy toward Africa and “a new path to advance peace and stability in Africa,” a bipartisan group of 29 lawmakers suggested in a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken last week, Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod reports.
Path forward: The lawmakers urged the administration to work to facilitate further normalization between Israel and African nations, and “seize the opportunity to integrate and expand the successes of the Abraham Accords into our broader Africa strategy” as “a vital tool to advance our support for long-term regional, economic, and strategic interests in Africa.”
Opportunities: Led by Reps. John James (R-MI), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-FL), the lawmakers urged the administration to take a more expansive view of the Accords as not just “a foundation for peace in the Middle East” but also a “mechanism to build multilateral partnerships and networks capable of promoting cooperation among nations” and combat Chinese and Russian efforts to assert their influence on the continent.
Bonus: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) announced plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks relating to incentivizing additional countries to join the Abraham Accords, but — in an unusual situation for a public statement — indicated that in Risch’s words, “all parties” had not yet “reach[ed] agreement for introduction.”
✍️ A New Generation Bears Witness: The New York Times’ Sarah Wildman interviews author Anne Berest about her 2021 book The Postcard, a loosely fictionalized account of her relatives’ murders during the Holocaust, which was recently translated into English. “‘During the Holocaust, millions of people were killed,’ Ms. Berest told me recently. ‘But not only people were killed, also all the books they had to write. All the paintings they had to paint. All the music they had to compose,” she paused. “I think that is why we, the children and grandchildren of the survivors, are obsessed with working and writing books.’ I too have long been haunted by the breadth of the loss of human life, of dignity, of property and also of potential. The story Ms. Berest tells in ‘The Postcard’ is an encapsulation of the effort of the third generation — of which I am also a part — to insist that the reader engage with the war at a granular level, murdered individual by murdered individual. Ms. Berest began her project as she was expecting her first daughter, conscious that the next generation will not know survivors the way we did.” [NYTimes]
🇸🇦 Saudi Times Are a-Changin’: Former Trump administration Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt reflects in the Arab News on the changes in Saudi Arabia since his first visit in 2017. “Meetings with the crown prince were always remarkable. He was a man with a plan. His energy level was off the charts. His optimism and plans for the country were thrilling. Vision 2030, a massive economic and social plan to change the trajectory of the Kingdom and wean the country away from oil revenue, was breathtaking. In meeting after meeting over the course of those three years I heard firsthand where he wanted to steer the Kingdom: stamping out corruption; returning to a version of moderate Islam that was present in the Kingdom long before I ever set foot there; lifting restrictions on women in Saudi society, including allowing them to drive and encouraging them to participate in the workforce; changing the curriculum in schools; creating jobs for young people; conceiving massive developments known as ‘giga-projects’; creating a brand new massive entertainment sector and other significant goals were not just being described or dreamed of, but were actively being designed, planned and starting to be implemented.” [ArabNews]
📗 Missing Memories:Tablet magazine’s critic-at-large Marco Roth reviews Martha Hodes’ memoir about her experience as a hostage on a plane hijacked by the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1970. “Hodes discovers that her 12-year-old self was a thoroughly unreliable narrator — less of the experiences she actually wrote down but of the range of experiences and emotions she was willing to admit. A faithful teenage diarist, inspired, she says, by Anne Frank, with whom she shares a birthday, Hodes later realizes she was also editing her diary as she wrote it, crossing out a sentence taking note of a stewardess comforting her crying older sister — in one instance — and, in other cases, entirely failing to note worrisome events like the moment when she and all the other Jewish passengers were taken off the plane, herded into a circle, and held for an indeterminate length of time, unsure if they were about to be machine-gunned…. As Hodes writes, ‘I see that the aspiring writer in me constructed not a full record but instead a tolerable story; not a truthful story but instead a bearable one; not an honest story but instead a story I could tell when I got home, most especially to my father … That narrative of omissions would comprise my version of the hijacking and I would carry it with me for years and years afterward.’” [Tablet]
🪧 Poking the Bear: In Foreign Policy, Sajjad Safaei suggests that the ongoing protests in Iran have exacerbated tensions between Iran’s rulers and the country’s military apparatus. “That the Islamic Republic has been facing chronic crises of effective management and legitimacy is no secret. The implications of these crises are most keenly felt when one inspects the dismal state of the Iranian economy, the gradual erosion of the political system’s legitimacy, the unbearably narrow space for political dissent, and the growing stifling of civil liberties. The state’s failure to fulfill some of its most basic responsibilities toward citizens has prompted it to increasingly bank on its security-related successes as a source of legitimacy to deflect domestic criticism. As a result, the provision of security has found new meaning for both sovereign and citizen. Increasingly, it is the state’s ability to maintain the safety and security of its citizens that acts as the primary metric according to which it is judged; good governance is disproportionately tied to the success of the security apparatus and couched in security-centric language. That Iran is situated in a region marred by turmoil and instability has only reinforced this trend.” [ForeignPolicy]
Around the Web
📄 Trump Documents: Lawyers for former President Donald Trump told the Justice Department that they cannot locate classified documents on Iran that Trump said he had in a recorded conversation in 2021.
🇺🇦 Haley’s Hit: In a CNN town hall Sunday night, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized both Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for declining to say they want Ukraine to prevail over Russia.
🗳️ Field of Dreams: Nearly the entire field of Republican candidates — except for Trump — attended GOP Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride gathering Saturday in Iowa to make the case for their candidacies.
🛫 Sky’s the Limit: Polly Trottenberg, the Biden administration’s deputy transportation secretary, is expected to be named the interim head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
🕰️ Decision Time: Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) told the Washington Post that he is keeping open the possibility of running for the Senate.
🎙️ Eye on CNN: The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta published a 15,000-word profile of CNN CEO Chris Licht as the network faces declining ratings and subpar employee morale. In New York magazine, Brian Stelter, who worked at CNN for nine years, considers Licht’s future at the embattled network, while The New York Timesreports on former CNN President Jeff Zucker’s dismay over the state of the company and Licht’s tenure as its leader.
✋ Against the Strategy: In Tablet magazine, Eitan Fischberger and Rabbi Avi Weiss argue against the flaws of the White House’s national strategy to combat antisemitism.
🎁 Probing the Presents: The Washington Postspotlights the federal investigation into whether Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife accepted gifts from a company that won a lucrative contract with the Egyptian government.
🎉 Scene Last Night: More than 25,000 people gathered in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center for the second annual Adirei HaTorah, a learning celebration honoring the students of the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva.
👨🎤 Across the Pond: London’s O2 Arena is facing pressure from Jewish groups and politicians to reconsider serving as a venue for Roger Waters’ upcoming concerts in the city, following the former Pink Floyd frontman’s controversial performance in Berlin, which is now being investigated by German authorities.
📰 From Behind the Bars:The New York Times published an interview with Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who is serving a 10-year sentence in Iran’s Evin prison for speaking out against the regime.
🤴 Royal Schmooze: Ivanka Trump and Prince William were spotted chatting at the Jordanian royal wedding last week.
🚰 Water Wonder: The Circuit spotlights Ma Hawa, a new Emirati venture in partnership with Israel’s Watergen that aims to provide an eco-friendly alternative to bottled water.
🇪🇬 🇮🇱 On the Border: Three Israeli soldiers were killed in a cross-border incident with an Egyptian policeman, whom Israeli officials said initially shot two soldiers and killed a third in an ensuing firefight.
⚖️ Judicial Juggernaut: In Foreign Affairs, Aaron David Miller and Dan Kurtzer consider the impact that efforts to reform Israel’s judicial system could have on the Palestinians.
📂 Open File: Israel declassified the files of a Nazi who posed as a Jewish refugee and joined the Israeli Defense Forces, later using his position to spy for Egypt.
➡️ Transition: Chuck Todd will depart NBC’s “Meet the Press” after nine years as host, and will remain with the network in the new role of chief political analyst.
🕯️ Remembering: Holocaust survivor and Judge Thomas Buergenthal, who during his time on the International Court of Justice in The Hague was the only jurist to dissent on an opinion calling for the dismantling of the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, died at 89. Songwriter Cynthia Weil, who with her husband and writing partner, Barry Mann, wrote such hits as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “On Broadway,” died at 82.
Pic of the Day
Israeli President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with CEO and co-founder of OpenAI, Sam Altman, who is visiting Israel as part of a trip that will also take Altman to Jordan, Qatar, UAE, India and South Korea.
Portrait photographer and visual anthropologist, she is the author of The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora, Penny Diane Wolin turns 70…
Lithuanian-born Holocaust survivor, co-founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Va., known for his ever-present cowboy hat, Jay M. Ipson turns 88… Training director and broker associate of the Santa Monica, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services branch, Saul Bubis… Owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, Robert Kraft turns 82… ESG consultant, Dan Yurman… Israeli politician, diplomat and businessperson, he served as consul general of Israel in Philadelphia from 1988 to 1992, Israel Peleg turns 74… VP of new business development at Maresco & Partners, Linda Greenfield… Author of eleven personal finance books, Susan Lynn “Suze” Orman turns 72… Staff member at Burbank Temple Emanu El, Audrey Freedman-Habush… Former commissioner on the U.S. International Trade Commission, Dean A. Pinkert turns 67… Best-selling instrumental musician, the saxophonist “Kenny G,” Kenneth Bruce Gorelick turns 67… Columnist for the New York Post, Andrea Peyser turns 64… Counsel for Alan Taylor Real Estate, Sam Kraemer… EVP and managing director at D.C.’s Burson Cohn & Wolfe, Michael Heimowitz… Former member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament for eight years until 2022, Gila Deborah Martow turns 62…
VP of government affairs at Invenergy, Mark S. Weprin turns 62… First-ever Jewish speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates when she was elected in 2020, Eileen R. Filler-Corn turns 59… Beth A. Freeman… Member of Congress (D-PA), her father is a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland, Christina Jampoler Houlahan turns 56… Former member of the British Parliament for 15 years, he served as minister of culture under PM David Cameron, Baron Ed Vaizey turns 55… Entrepreneur, venture capitalist and author, Nova Spivack turns 54… Professor of Israel Studies at UCLA, Dov Morris Waxman turns 49… Actress, she has a recurring role in the Fox series “The Cleaning Lady,” Liza Rebecca Weil turns 46… Co-founder of BlueLabs and director of analytics for the campaigns of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012, his father and grandfather were rabbis, Elan Alter Kriegel… Research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he was previously a member of the New Hampshire state legislature, Jason Bedrick turns 40… Training and support specialist at Voyant, Arielle Levy… Account director at M Booth, Maya Bronstein… Clara Moskowitz… Susan Stein…
WEEKEND BIRTHDAY: Founding director of AJC’s Berlin office, he is now council chair of Kendal on Hudson, Eugene DuBow turned 91 on Saturday…