Ben Rhodes joins Jewish Insider’s ‘Limited Liability Podcast’
On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast,” co-hosts Richard Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by Ben Rhodes, former White House deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration and author of the new book After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, for a lively conversation on the state of partisan politics, his definition of Zionism, and the Iran deal.
Below is a full transcript of the episode.
[00:00] Rich: The Iran Nuclear Deal stands today as one of the most controversial foreign policy initiatives undertaken by a US president in recent memory. Opposed by a bipartisan majority in Congress, President Barack Obama waged a massive PR and government relations campaign to keep the deal moving forward eventually winning over enough Senate Democrats to block legislation to stop the deal.
The fight was bitter, the rhetoric was harsh, and the results were mixed. Sanctions were lifted on Iran only to be re-imposed a few years later when the opposing party took control of government. 10 years ago, the US Senate passed sanctions on Iran Central Bank, 100 to nothing, over the objections of the Obama administration. Today, however, bipartisanship is hard to come by with progressives pressing President Biden to lift sanctions on Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal while Conservatives warn they’ll reimpose sanctions and leave the deal no matter what.
Today, we’re joined by the person credited with designing the political and messaging strategy that allowed the Iran deal to move forward and that broke the decade’s long bipartisan consensus on Iran. Coming up we’ll go deep on the issues with Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting. Don’t push pause, you’re listening to Limited Liability Podcast.
[1:33] Jarrod: Today we are fortunate to have with us one of the central figures in the formulation and execution of foreign policy in the Obama administration. Ben Rhodes served as a speechwriter and then-Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications for President Barack Obama. He’s an author and a commentator in a variety of news outlets and serves as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Ben, welcome to the podcast, we have lots to discuss. I know Rich will have a lot of substantive questions on your contrasting worldviews, the JCPOA, and the recent conflict, but first you have a new book out.
[2:06] Ben Rhodes: I do.
[2:06] Jarrod: After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made. For me, the most interesting part right off the bat was where you talk about being surveilled by a private Israeli intelligence firm. Were you surprised that your opponents went to those lengths and has this gone too far?
[2:26] Ben: Yes, as I described in the book, I was surprised at how unsurprising it was when I learned about it. Look, our politics has just gotten uglier over the years and more personal, and traditional boundaries of respecting certain space or norms have fallen away. What was interesting to me about that experience which I relay in the book is like– I learned about this in the press. I wake up one day and someone sends me a link to an article in The Guardian that’s like, “Black Cube has been hired to surveil you and dig up dirt on you somehow.”
I got a call then from Ronan Farrow, who’s become something of a celebrity journalist because he had actually interacted with Black Cube because they had surveilled some of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and Ronan obviously had broken that story. He had me go back through my email and he cued me up, “Hey, if you get any emails with these kinds of characteristics,” and led me to an email in which somebody had reached out to my wife saying they were a film producer for Shell Productions, which is a pretty ironic name.
They wanted to talk to her about the personal lives of people involved in negotiations with the country to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon and negotiations with a country that has been under embargo for decades. It didn’t say Iran and Cuba, that’s how it characterized it. What happens in people’s lives when those things are going on. It wasn’t that subtle, it wasn’t necessarily the best tradecraft.
Actually, the point that I’ve made in the book that was interesting when I reflected on this incident is, given how overt that email was and given how this thing got out, actually part of me thought that the whole point was actually not to find some information about me. It was actually for it to get out, right. That there’s an intimidation factor that comes from– and I have no idea who paid for this. I don’t know what the point of origin of it was. There’s lots of different competing theories.
The simple fact is, I actually think that it was more about making people think twice about getting involved in these debates, and it was a demoralizing aspect to it. That to me was the discovery I had when I thought about it. That like, “Maybe, actually, that’s what this is about.” In the same way that there was a brute force to online debates and a trolling that takes place. This may have been a more sophisticated form of trolling in a way.
[5:16] Rich: I’m not a stranger to some of that. There’s obviously left-wing websites and oppo firms that have come after many of us in the past, and you can Google and see our profiles online. I’m sure you have the same on your end. I do wonder, you talk about the ugly rhetoric and the personalization of this. To what extent when you reflect back to 2015, the rhetoric that was used out of the White House and with allies of the White House in trying to sell the Iran deal.We had these phrases like “Israel firster, in the pocket of the Israel lobby, putting Israel’s interest over America’s.” I’ll never forget The Huffington Post with the 16 saboteurs and the democratic senators who were proposing sanctions legislation. You reflect them. That seemed to really personalize in a very ugly way the politics of the Iran deal fight. Do you agree with that?
[6:08] Ben: First of all, we never said that, Israel firsters out of the White House. One of the strange experiences that I had, Rich, is, I was assigned a lot more power than I had by some of our critics. That I was somehow completely masterminding and shaping everything that everybody said in this debate. No, when I look back on that, if you look at the huge volume of material produced by the White House in defense of the Iran deal, it was usually very specific.
We made a concerted effort. “We’re going to get nuclear experts. We’re going to get scientists. We’re going to have Ernie Moniz out in this thing. We’re going to try to make this air tight fact-based case for our argument.” I think the one argument that was more contested, because we never said “Israel firsters or in the pocket of”– You never heard that language emanating from the White House, nor were we encouraging people to do that. The argument that we made that touched a nerve with some people was that there was basically a choice between this kind of deal, Iran getting a nuclear weapon or another war. In a deal versus war framing that people found offensive because people said, “You’re saying we want to go to war.” I still stand by those arguments in the sense of, what we’re saying is there’s three ways to solve this problem. You either are going to have some diplomatic agreement that restricts and restrains and rolls back the Iranian nuclear program. You’re going to have an unconstrained Iran nuclear program, or you’re going to have to use military force to constrain the nuclear program.
I continue. I make that argument today. When I look back on that period, the stuff being thrown at us, the stuff being thrown at me personally, it’s not like I emerged from that not bloodied and bruised. There was pretty brutal rhetoric used against us at that time. Again, I think if you look at what actually came from the White House, it was usually totally fact-based argument for, “Hey, here’s why we think this is a good deal.” We never would have used language like “Israel firsters” or things like that. That never would’ve come from the White House.
[8:33] Rich: I agree with you that there was carefulness to some extent from the White House statements on the official side. You did have the White House press secretary with the infamous press conference basically calling people warmongers. You did have at times the president making references to lobbyists and who was he referencing? Probably AIPAC at the time during the fight. At the same time, it was known and you talk about it in your book, and the excerpts I’ve seen of you gathered with people, you gathered with allies, organizations, NIAC, others, and you gave them talking points, you gave them messaging points. They weren’t out there blindly using this language on their own. There was this so-called echo chamber that was created.
[9:14] Ben: Let me take different pieces of that. On the last piece, any White House meets with outside groups and says, “Here are our talking points. Here’s our arguments.” There was an effort to paint us nefarious. What any communications shop in the White House of any political party just does as a matter of course, and it was cast as a diabolical new tactic employed on the Iran deal. Jarrod, you worked in the White House. The ACA, what do you think happened in the healthcare debate? They met with outside groups and they said, “Here’s the case for the ACA, and here are the arguments that people are going to be making against the ACA, and here’s how we’d suggest that you counter those arguments.” Then, by the way, the groups go off and make their own cases. They don’t stick to the script that the White House provides them. Again, I think there was this effort to cast us as the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain when it really the routinized nature of any White House. I think on the lobbying point, AIPAC put out a statement opposing the Iran nuclear deal right away and said that they were going to lobby against. We weren’t inventing a story that there were people lobbying against the Iran nuclear deal. They also indicated that they were going to spend I think $40 million and they’re going to advertise in states. That’s their choice. They’re more than welcome to do that. Anybody can lobby for any policy or against any policy they want. That’s American democracy. Pointing that out and just saying– we’re just naming that this is going to be a tough debate. I think that’s just the reality of what the situation was. We weren’t the ones that assigned at AIPAC or any other group. FDD, like what you just said, you’re more than welcome to lobby against or argue against or mount opposition to a deal. That just is what it is. I don’t know why– in some ways, the Iran debate, there was a lot of help to it. There was just like, “I’ve never been a part of a foreign policy initiative that was that thoroughly debated in some ways.” That’s just normal.I think on this war point, it’s a basic difference of view and the argument we’re making is like the one I just made, again, which I’ll continue to make as long as this is an issue. There are different ways of solving this, and frankly we don’t see a way– if you define the Maximus version of what should be accomplished in a nuclear deal to include basically– and I don’t want a caricature, but no enrichment or no ballistic missile program, a change in the Iranian foreign policy, all which are things that I wish would happen. I don’t think that those things are possible. I think that that leaves you with a much narrower set of choices for how you’re going to deal with the problem. If you’re saying that the only deal that is available is one that we concluded in the Obama White House, you may disagree. We concluded that’s unachievable. Then what is available to a president to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. It’s either some diplomatic agreement that Iran can be brought into, it’s no diplomatic agreement, in which case you have an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program which has again been the case since the JCPOA was left by the Trump administration, or you’re in another war. You’re taking military action to roll back that program. I think that was a legitimate argument to make.
[13:05] Rich: Obviously, president Obama famously would always say the military option was on the table and he wasn’t a warmonger by your estimation. Both sides have a military option on the table. You choose the JCPOA, we choose a different combination of pressure tactics that are non-military. Just to clarify-
[13:24] Ben: They haven’t worked.
[13:26] Rich: Actually, they did work and probably would have worked had the president re-elected but when you go down a $4 billion left in an accessible-
[13:32] Ben: That’s quite a counter factor.
[13:35] Rich: Well, it’s true. We’ll get there. But just to finish this one point. To clarify, for those who were allies of the White House that went out there and used terms “Israel firster”, in the pocket the Israel lobby, all that. You condemn that you’re not for that, you understand that that contributes to anti-Semitic tropes and that kind of language was quite triggering for a lot of members of Congress and for leaders of the Jewish community.
[14:00] Ben: Israel firster? Look, absolutely, I think it is entirely the case as we’re experiencing right now that you have to be mindful of anti-Semitic tropes. You have to be mindful of the history of certain arguments that have been made to tar all Jews. Absolutely. Suggesting, as Donald Trump did repeatedly, that Jews loyalty are somehow first to Israel and not to America. That’s out of bounds. Again, let’s be clear. This comes from the right and the left. It came from the president of the United States, the last president, on more than one occasion suggesting that somehow Jews had a principal loyalty to Israel over the United States. Absolutely. The language is outside of bounds.What I don’t think is fair is to weaponize that charge when people just have a policy disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu, or when people– Again, on the AIPAC point, I’ve said this repeatedly, there are a lot of lobbying groups that represent all kinds of interests that I don’t agree with. Pointing out that that lobbying exists, who are we kidding? Of course, it does. It’s part of democracy. To me, the over definition of what goes into the category of what should be rightfully condemned is ultimately counterproductive. We have to figure out a way where we can have debates, there can be differences between American administrations and Israeli administrations, there can be differences, seemingly increasingly between some AIPAC priorities and some positions in Democratic party. Those debates are part of democracy, we can have them.
Absolutely, people need to be sensitive in the language that they use, and the ways they frame their arguments and making very clear that a policy disagreement with an Israeli prime minister and Israeli government is not with all of Israel itself, never mind all the Jewish people, which would be insane, but I think that you have to be able to separate those things out, but it’s a challenge. It’s absolutely a challenge.
[16:27] Jarrod: Ben, I would tell you that one of the impetuses behind this podcast, because Rich and I agree on almost nothing foreign policy-wise, is that we want to be able to have this conversation like we’re having right now in a fact-based, civil, we were both as patriots heartbroken by what we saw in January, even if we have uncomfortable conversations. Last week, we had a really interesting conversation with the delegate from the US Virgin Islands about Black-Jewish relations, and I want to come back to that, but my question to you-
[16:53] Rich: And about statehood for the Virgin Islands.
[16:55] Jarrod: And about statehood for the Virgin Islands.
[16:56] Rich: Which was uncomfortable for many as well.
[16:58] Jarrod: Yes. I would want to just come back, there were people who talked about people who are in the Obama administration, who were for the Iran deal, who may have been Jewish or partly Jewish, written in Foreign Policy magazine and books that somehow your Jewishness was on trial, that you were some kind of a traitor for being for this deal. How does that make you feel, and should that even be part of the conversation?
[17:29] Ben: In a way, it’s so funny, Jarrod, is that that’s a mirror image of the conversation we’re just having. If the core– if one of them– anti-Semitism is such a cancer, and is at the heart of the opposite of everything I believe in, because as an American, what I believe in is everybody has a place here. Everybody can have their own identities and be an American, a full American. The assumption, the presumption that because you are Jewish, you have a higher loyalty to Israel is playing right into an anti-Semitic trope. The same way suggesting that someone who is not sufficiently in line with the policies of the Jewish state, must not really be Jewish or must be a self-hating Jewish, must have some issues with their parents or something like– That’s the mirror image of the charge because it’s accepting the premise of the anti-Semitic trope. To me, I’ve tried to acknowledge the complexity of these issues in that I’m not a religious Jew. I was not raised in the religion of Judaism. My mother was Jewish. She was a New York Jewish mother. That’s a very, very strong cultural-historical attachment I have to Jewish identity. I was raised– if you’d asked me when I was a kid what my identities were, I actually would have said, “I’m an American, I’m a New Yorker and I come from a Jewish background.” That was my truth. That’s how I thought of my own identity. It was deeply informed by the historical experience of the Jewish people, was deeply informed by obviously the Holocaust, was deeply informed by the immigrant experience in the United States because my family had come from Europe over a course of many years and followed that classic Brooklyn Lower East Side city college pathway. Jarrod, you and I talked about this. That was who I was. When I occasionally get dragged into this, I just think that I didn’t want–Just as I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that your identity, whatever your Jewish identity ism makes you self-hating if you have issues with certain policies of the Israeli government or something. I also think people should be able to determine their own identity and what’s important to them, and where they come from, and who they are. One of the great things about the American Jewish community is just how sprawling it is and how different things mean–Some people they’re different aspects of the way in which obviously that religious practiced, or different aspects in the way in which people think of themselves as being shaped by being Jewish. I know I’m one of those people. This isn’t just a story into the book, but what I was really wrestling with was the rise of Ethno-nationalism around the world and how that can bleed into authoritarianism, and how dangerous that is ultimately to the Jewish people because we’ve seen the dark places that that can lead. I felt deeply informed by my family background and just how I set out to write that book and how I think about things like blood and soil nationalism that you see emanating from lots of different parts of the world today. I’m glad you guys have this space. Even if Rich and I don’t agree I’m sure about the JCPOA matter of things. I’d just love for us to get back to a place where we are accepting of each other’s legitimate and authentic identities without casting it in these other terms.
[21:36] Rich: It’s funny you say that. I think about that every day and a lot of it, in my context, in my career on Capitol Hill before the administration, before state government, was in a real bipartisan manner. I worked for a moderate Republican out of the north shore of Illinois like that Northeast Rockefeller Republican mold and everything we did was bipartisan, is always up for reelection. The D trip targeting was in the house, DSCC target, and the Senate, and Iran-Israel type issues were a hundred and nothing in the Senate. We did the Central Bank of Iran sanctions, 2011, a hundred to nothing, with Bernie Sanders to even supporting it. It felt like there were times when you would say, “Oh, the partisan rancor’s just out of control. Nobody can agree with it,” but we could always come together in this foreign policy nexus and for a lot of people, including me, there is this feeling that you wrecked it. That that fight and the way it was conducted over the Iran deal, wrecked the bipartisan nature of a critical issue and we may never recover. You might find it to be an accomplishment because your worldview is different, then that was an accomplished. For a lot of people with my worldview, it’s like, “Man, that was really nothing. There is nothing we can agree on anymore. We used to be able to just completely agree on this and we can’t agree on this anymore,” and that’s a disappointment.
[23:01] Ben: I’m going to answer this in a longer way, Rich, because I really want to make this point where I’m going to end up, is it that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu wrecked it, but I’m going to start at the beginning. When I moved to D.C. in 2002, 2003, I was an AIPAC donor. I had the AIPAC card that you got. Support for Israel was sacrosanct in my household. There were heroes in my household, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin and the whole founding generation of Israel and I continue to be like a– I wrote speeches for President Obama that I hope people can read. The speech he gave in Jerusalem, the speech he gave eulogizing Shimon Peres, where I felt the unique and historically essential story of Zionism and the achievement of it, is something I still feel very deeply. It’s funny. It’s not like partisanship in the sense that, I never intended to become this big partisan. I was writing speeches for Barack Obama in 2008 about red states and blue states. It’s come together. I think the reality here is that as a Democrat and as a progressive Democrat, over the course of the last 12 years, I felt the Israeli government through its policies and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, moving away from what I believed in. I’ve found it to be the people who blame us for the current state of the relationship between the Democratic Party and the Israeli government are basically saying to us that we have to adjust our views on the Palestinian issue, or on the Iran nuclear issue to be aligned with Bibi Netanyahu’s particular views, or else we’re wrecking the relationship. I don’t think that’s fair because policies– it would have been mainstream like around Oslo in the ’90s up to Camp David about a two-state solution and what that solution would look like.
Now, if you take those positions you’re seen as somehow anti-Israel. It’s the same position. I have the same position today on the Israeli Palestinian issue as I did when I was an AIPAC card-carrying donor in 2004. What’s changed is Israeli politics. On the Iran issue, we didn’t break norms by the way in which we made the case for the diplomatic agreement that we had always said that we were trying to reach through the Obama administration. It was Prime Minister Netanyahu, who at the invitation of a Republican speaker of the house without even telling us. We didn’t learn from the Israeli government. We learned from a press release from John Boehner that the prime minister of Israel was going to come and make a speech to the US Congress against a signature foreign policy issue. That’s not the Democratic Party picking a fight with the Israeli prime minister. It’s the opposite here. We didn’t do everything perfect. I’m sure you find fault with what we did. You guys obviously have mounted a lot of arguments against what we’ve done on our policies, but on this one, I really don’t believe anybody in the Democratic Party got up one day and was like, “You know what we really want to do? We want to start having really intense disagreements with the Israeli government.That was not our intention. It was just the reality of an Israeli prime minister who was already to the right and went further and further to the right over the last 12 years. By the way, don’t take my word for it. Listen to him. A guy who made a speech in 2009 about the need for a two-state solution now says today that there’ll be no two-state solution on his watch. I mean that’s not an evolution in the Democratic party. That’s an evolution in the Likud party.
[27:18] Rich: Jarrod, I want to get in here before we dive deeper into JCPOA, but my one observation and response to that is, the 1990s had a very clear parallel of right and left politics for Americans and Israelis. The second Intifada changed Israeli politics way beyond Prime Minister Netanyahu. There’s a reason why they keep reelecting him. If you look at the polling-
[27:43] Jarrod: Or not.
[27:44] Rich: Well, or not. If you look at the polling, though, on these issues, we have reached the point of departure where the American left still is living in the 1990s and the Israeli left doesn’t really exist in that nature. They do on domestic issues. They just don’t on security issues.
[28:02] Ben: It’s a really good point, Rich. I’d say two things to build on it. Rahm Emanuel– I remember making this point after Bibi was elected. One of the great-
[28:13] Rich: My former mayor.
[28:13] Ben: Yes. One of the great what ifs of history is if Tzipi Livni can form a coalition. Yes, there usually a parallel left, right in both countries like there’s usually been one with us and the British. He’s like, “You don’t make progress on this issue if you’ve got a left-wing government in the US and a right-wing government in Israel.” That’s been the reality. I guess what I say, contrary to probably what the Jewish Insider audience might think, I hate having these fights. It hurts. It’s really painful and I’m sure people might say things like they don’t like the fights either. I’d rather this didn’t exist, but what I keep coming back to is at the end of the day even if you don’t like criticism of the Israeli government, you certainly don’t like criticism of the Israeli government during a Gaza war. You’ve got to answer the question for me. There are 7 million Palestinians. What is going to happen to them? Are they going to have a state? Are they going to have equal rights in one state? Are they going to leave? Are they going to have lesser rights? What is the answer? Because I think that if your point is true, if Israelis have just moved to the right, prioritize security, don’t trust peace, we pulled out a Gaza we got rockets. Let’s say that all those things are true. You still have to answer this question of what happens to the Palestinians? They live there. There’s 7 million of them between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. A bunch of them in Israel, a bunch of them in West Bank and Gaza. I think if the Israeli government could produce better answers, there’d certainly be less criticism. It’s not enough to just move to the right. You still need to answer that question.
[30:28] Jarrod: Ben, how do you define Zionism in 2021?
[30:32] Ben: I think it’s always been that the Jewish people deserve a homeland in their historic homeland. That’s the simplest version. I learned a lot. I’ll tell you a mistake I made. Believe it or not, I can admit error. I remember in the Cairo speech which I helped President Obama write, we made reference to Israel’s history being rooted in a tragic past, and we made particular reference to the Holocaust. Our intention in doing that, by the way, was to call out Holocaust denial in the Muslim world and to speak to the fact that, if you’d had the Holocaust in your recent memory as a people, it’s totally legitimate to be particularly concerned about security. That was our basic argument. I got a bunch of pushback. “Well, you suggested that Israel only exist because of the Holocaust.” That was a totally fair and accurate criticism to discount the fact that this is the historical mind of the Jewish people. By the way, the journey back to Israel didn’t just commence with the Holocaust itself, right. I understand that. What’s also complicated for me, and I admit, I have a totally imperfect understanding of this. It’s probably an understanding that’s not distinct and dissimilar from some other pretty secular American Jews, is in my household, even though Zionism is obviously about a Jewish homeland and the Jewish state, there was a secular component to it as well. In the sense that, Israel was founded and governed on these socialist principles. Again, like the liberal New York Jewish tradition where people looked into the kibbutz. Bernie Sanders could plug into that experience. I remember also in the Obama years, there was a growing emphasis which led into the nationality laws in Israel, on affirming Israel’s identity as a Jewish state not rooted just in that Zionist tradition, but rooted in ways that as it got into those nationality laws start to affect who can be here, what rights are for people who aren’t Jewish, and that’s where it starts to be much more complicated to me. In the sense of, well, what are the rights for people who live in Israel who are Palestinian, who are Arabs, who are not Jews. That’s another area where I think there’s going to have to be a lot of discussion debate about that because I think that if you look at the Jewish tradition and Jewish ethics and how much that has contributed to political thinking around equality, there’s an inconsistency in saying that we’re not going to give equal rights to all people who live here.
[33:55] Rich: All right. Changing gears, as Jarrod would say-
[33:58] Jarrod: As I would say.
[33:59] Rich: As he would say. JCPOA, I do want to get into this a little more. We’ll walk out a little bit for some people but I think it’ll be very helpful to dissect your worldview and also perhaps clear up myths that are out there. To start, I have a lightning round. Not the fun lightning round that’ll come later, but-
[34:22] Ben: We have a fun lightning around at the end.
[34:24] Rich: A serious lightning round. Which is really just your top line worldviews on this region, on this issue. I think there are a lot of things that people would assume about you and I don’t want them to assume. Do you agree that Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and that’s a very bad thing?
[34:43] Ben: Yes.
[34:46] Rich: Do you believe that Hamas is a-
[34:48] Ben: Although they are getting some stiff competition these days, but yes.
[34:53] Rich: Do you believe that Hamas and Hezbollah are both terrorist organizations, they should be named terrorist organizations, they should be on the terror list, they do bad things?
[35:03] Ben: Yes, absolutely.
[35:04] Rich: Do you believe in a concept of good and evil in the world?
[35:09] Ben: Yes. In the world and inside of individual human beings, yes.
[35:12] Rich: In your view, the Islamic Republic of Iran, does it fall into the evil camp?
[35:19] Ben: I don’t like calling any country evil because I think the countries are made up of individuals. There are evil people in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There are good people who live in that country. Yes, this is core to my worldview. I would not point at any one country in the world and say, “That country is evil.”
[35:43] Rich: Well, obviously, not Iranians, right? Iranians, a lot of them are very pro-Western and hate their government, but the regime that is the Islamic Republic overall.
[35:53] Ben: Rich, this is actually– and here I think we’ll have a difference. I had this experience negotiating with Cuba. I’m much more experienced in the negotiations of Cuba than Iran. We look at that, and we say, “This is an autocratic government. It’s terrible.” Absolutely, it’s an autocratic government. No government is monolithic. Government, there are different people inside of these regimes. There are technocrats in the Islamic Republic of Iran who I don’t think are evil people. There are some evil people who are hateful, and Holocaust deniers, and killers, and the rest of it as well. No, I don’t. I wouldn’t look at any one government or nation and say, “It’s a monolith. All those people are the same. All those people are evil.” I think that the US makes a mistake sometimes in its foreign policy. We deny ourselves opportunities to make diplomatic progress when we look at whole governments which are incredibly complicated organisms filled with very different people, and say, “That whole government is evil.” I don’t think any government is a monolith. I don’t.
[37:13] Jarrod: We can even go back to look at the North Vietnamese regime and say, “They were the bad guys. They were evil,” but the reality was actually much more complicated about what the North Vietnamese regime wanted vis-à-vis the south. You could look time after time in American history.
[37:29] Rich: Listen, most hawkish of people, the people who are for regime change– I have colleagues I know. Reuel Marc Gerecht, big scholar, Ray Takeyh over at CFR, they would all argue there are these pockets of different factions in the regime, it’s not monolithic, as you say, absolutely. But, the core thesis of the regime still includes things like wiping Israel off the map, delivering a second Holocaust effectively, which is also the same mandate thesis of Hezbollah and Hamas which receive funding and support from Iran as well. From that basis, would we agree that those goals, aspirations, that they have are evil?
[38:08] Ben: Those goals are evil. The goal of wiping Israel off the map are evil.
[38:12] Rich: [laughs] Yes.
[38:13] Ben: That’s an easy one. Again, I just think to Jarrod’s point, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire”, but Mikhail Gorbachev was not evil. Mikhail Gorbachev probably saved more lives than maybe any human being as ever lived by allowing the Cold War to end peacefully. I don’t know, man. I respect the impulse towards total moral clarity here. There are some things that cross boundaries that have to be called out and named as evil, as bad, as irredeemable. I think when you start applying that label to whole governments, even ones that do odious things that have odious origins–I don’t think that ends well. I also think it denies you opportunities, and I think it dehumanizes people. Maybe I’m a lefty, but I don’t like to look at the world like that.
[39:21] Jarrod: Ben, can I ask– it’s a little bit of a tangent here, but Rich and I have been talking a lot of late about the far left making common cause with Hamas, maybe with the Iranian regime. I guess the thing that struck me the most during the most recent conflict is how, not far left, but just the left really totally glossed over a lot of the failings of the Hamas regime in Gaza like how awful they are to women, how awful they are to the LGBT community, how awful they are about basic services for their people, and they were lobbing hundreds of rockets into mainland Israel indiscriminately, and they just glossed over all that. What is the Democratic Party and the left in general to do? Because are they being duped or is there something else going on here that we can’t yet explain?
[40:22] Rich: Well, the contrast I would add to Israel, which has really opened up on LGBTQ, on women, there are no gay people in Iran as we’re told, so we know what their record is there.
[40:35] Ben: There’s a lot to say about that. The first thing I’d say is that I wouldn’t want to ever be in a point where the positions of my– I’ll say this is American. It’s been critical of aspects of American foreign policy. I wouldn’t want to say that my actions should not be scrutinized because of the nature of my adversaries. I think that is the slippery slope in this country, I think, that led to some of the excesses of the war on terror, but that’s a whole other thing. That’s another debate. I don’t know. I think obviously the approach I take from the progressive standpoint would be this, “It’s that obviously Hamas is a bad actor.”
Jarrod, one of the things I’m proudest of is the Iron Dome system, which we went above and beyond to support precisely because we wanted to help protect Israeli citizens from Hamas. There are enormous efforts being pursued by the US government to try to be a part of an effort to interdict support from Iran or anybody else that’s trying to go into Hamas in terms of the development of these rockets.
I think there’s two issues that I’d highlight that may go beyond where you guys are on this in terms of criticisms. The first is that, has the current policy worked? We’ve basically had a version of a blockade on Gaza since the 2006, 2007 period when Hamas comes to power and the people there are clearly hurting. They don’t have access to water and electricity for most of the day. They don’t have freedom of movement. There’s a collective suffering in Gaza that obviously Hamas is acutely responsible for, but also this policy that was supposed to be designed to somehow hurt Hamas, it seems to have not hurt.
Hamas is still there. They’re still able to get these rockets, and all these Palestinians are suffering who are not in Hamas. They’re not all in Hamas. If you look at that you’d think–
[43:08] Rich: The persecution of LGBTQ and women doesn’t happen because of the blockade, it has nothing to do with Israel. That’s the Hamas– [crosstalk] My point is why isn’t that an attention grabber for the progressive community? Why does progressive values end at the water’s edge in the cases of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah?
[43:33] Ben: I think because– I’m just trying to explain to you the mindset here, I’m not actually debating this. I’m just trying to clear the mindset. Obviously condemn the persecution of LGBTQ rights, obviously condemn the violent nihilism, terrorism, arson of Hamas, but I think when there’s this constant effort to ask people to focus on that, it sounds like you’re trying to avoid looking at why are these kids getting killed in these periodic Gaza wars. Why are the people there suffering? Is that helping? 60-plus Palestinian kids getting killed is not helping LGBT rights in Gaza. It just feels like–
[44:26] Jarrod: There’s no end state. I think we’re getting you.
[44:30] Ben: Yes. The utilitarian argument I would make here is that even from an Israeli security and anti-Hamas perspective, this approach, which I lived for eight years and which– We supported Israel’s right to defend itself and took a lot of flack from the left at the time. Although not nearly as much as now. I’ve been a part of this approach, it doesn’t seem to solve this problem, and the problem of Hamas and its rockets and its being entrenched in Gaza–the blockade is clearly hurting the people there, but it doesn’t seem to be dislodging Hamas. Isn’t there a better way of doing this? I also think though that the broader issue is that the lack of– It’s the question that came back to earlier. The reason that you see more voices on this, on the progressive side, some of it is what I talked about earlier, Prime Minister Netanyahu. Some of it is the new generation of progressive activism in this country is very focused on structural inequality generally. They look at the progression of events in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza and it fits into a broader worldview of, “Well, that’s a structural inequity. What rights do Palestinians have? What opportunities do they have?” What’s interesting about it is it’s not like the old, we’re singling Israel out. That’s actually like, they’re making versions of that criticism in a lot of places now. You’re right to flag for them, “Hey, what about these guys?” It’s not like Hamas is for equality. Absolutely. You should point that out. I think what progressives say is, “Yes, but that doesn’t justify an approach that seems to both not be working and dislodging Hamas. It seems to be perpetuating and exacerbating structural inequality, not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank, but even in places like Haifa, and certainly in Jerusalem.” I think it’s important though, that we have conversations like this, because better to air all these different perspectives rather than just have conversations with our own team on these things.
[46:45] Jarrod: I don’t want to deny, Rich, his JCPOA question–
[46:48] Ben: Oh, yes. Go for it, Rich.
[46:49] Jarrod: -because he’s been talking about this for–
[46:52] Rich: I’ve waited my whole life for this [unintelligible 00:46:53].
[46:54] Ben: You know what I’m going to say but if you are in the lightning round.
[46:57] Rich: I do. The senior administration official, I know what he says a lot.
[47:02] Jarrod: The senior Senate aid, I feel like you guys have been a lot in the same news story over the years.
[47:07] Ben: Honestly, I thought the question about the Islamic Republic, that is a difference, but I want you to know it doesn’t mean that I don’t see the horrific excesses of the Islamic Republic. I just happen to think that the most important part is to stop them from getting nuclear weapon. I happen to think that the JCPOA was the best way to do that.
[47:29] Rich: That is a great segue to my question. Great segue. It stems from the lightning round question. It stems from what you just said as well. When you tried to sell the JCPOA to Congress, everyone from President Obama and down, Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of State, Undersecretary, one of the things that was repeated over and over again, because it was one of the criticisms, was no matter what, we will be able to impose terrorism sanctions on Iran going forward. I have a copy of the White House explainer on it. It goes very detailed, very specific into the exact executive order, 13224, that we can use. Lifted sanctions, call them all nuclear sanctions. I won’t debate that for the moment, but obviously overtime during the Trump administration, a lot of the Executive Order 13224 sanctions were applied based on credible evidence, Treasury Department, State Department, Justice Department, all of that. You know how sanctions work. They’ve been imposed on the Islamic Republic. This is now a point of tension because Secretary Blinken testified in January during his confirmation hearing, saying, we support terrorism sanctions, we’re going to leave them. They’re not inconsistent with JCPOA, which sounds very much like what we were told back in 2015. Now you have Rob Malley, the Special Envoy for Iran, who has been trotting out there and now says, “Well, actually some of those sanctions are inconsistent with the JCPOA.” Sounds like he’s saying that if sanctions were ever lifted for a bank, for a company, for a person under the JCPOA, to begin with, blanket immunity for all of them to finance terrorism, which to me is totally not what we were told. Where do you come down on this, the issue of terrorism sanctions on Iran? Were we misled in 2015 when you all told us that we could impose those? Are we not allowed to impose terrorism sanctions when there’s evidence of it?
[49:25] Ben: First of all, we’ve imposed additional terrorism related sanctions than I think in 2016. We continue to pursue designation vendor existing executive orders even after the implementation of the JCPOA. As you know, Rich, there’s a whole sanctions architecture on Iran that continued even after the implementation of the JCPOA. It’s not like American businesses were able to pour into Iran here, as well as even European businesses and others had to be very careful, even during that period of implementation, to not run afoul of sustained US sanctions. I think what Rob is speaking to, and look, this is one area where I think there was I think the perception, and you heard this in some of the reports that came out of the Trump administration, and even from folks at FTD. Towards the end of the Trump administration there was a flood of these that felt like they were designed to prevent or make harder the return to the JCPOA itself. The pace of sanctions in the last few months of the Trump administration felt like it was designed to be blunt sabotage an effort to get back in the JCPOA, and that the very hard work that I’m sure is happening in these negotiations is not like Rob or anybody else saying, let’s get rid of all these sanctions entirely, it’s just trying to sort out what do we think is a nuclear-related sanction and what do we think needs to stay in place. You and I, and I’m sure you and Rob would have– I’m not there. It’s hard for me to look at all these designations and sort one from the other. I think the simple explanation I give is that you and I and Rob, you probably have different definitions for that, but that doesn’t mean, no, by no means. I think that if the Biden team, let’s say they’re successful, let’s say they get back in the JCPOA. I’m sure they would continue to pursue additional terrorism-related designations going forward. As they should. I just think that there’s a belief that is not unique to Rob Malley. I don’t want to speak for Rob. There’s a belief that’s not unique to me that there was a particularly broad use of designations, particularly towards the end of the Trump years, that felt like an effort to undermine any return to the JCPOA not just pure terrorism the way he did policy.
[52:08] Rich: Let me push back on that a couple of ways. One, if you have evidence of financing terrorism, you have to produce that as you know. The intelligence community has to validate it, it has to get declassified; it becomes a sanctions package. Career civil servants at State and Treasury have to validate. DOJ has to validate that it can withstand legal challenge, and that means that if you’re using the executive order for financing terrorism, exact evidence of terrorism finance, not nuclear, right?
If you’re talking about a period of time when you would be trying to stop a Biden administration coming back in, it would have to be a period of time where you expected a Biden administration to be in office, which would have to be, at least mid to late 2020. If you believe things are going bad and you have given up on hope of reelection. If not, after the November election itself and you’re in transition. I’ll give you a specific example. The Central Bank of Iran is designated in late 2019. There’s no pandemic, September 20, 2019, full evidence of terrorism finance, using the executive order for terrorism that Barack Obama said we could use and that is now reportedly on the table to be lifted. There’s no way that Donald Trump or anybody worked for the administration believed that he wouldn’t win reelection in September of 2019. It clearly was not used to stop going back in the JCPOA. My question is, when clearly they go ahead and lift those sanctions and claim whatever they’re going to claim, do we have the right to reimpose those sanctions on a terrorism basis if the Central Bank of Iran continues to finance terrorism?
[53:49] Ben: I want to answer a couple of things here. First, again, not having all the evidentiary basis in front of me, I think the reality is that there was a much greater pace of designations towards the end of the Trump administration that again would suggest that something changed. When there’s a directive given in the US government to do something, people do it. Yes, they’re experts, and yes, they have to form a basis, but certainly I think the appearance was that there was an effort to pile on as many sanctions. “Look, I’m assigning a motive here in ways that we’re going to make it harder to get back in JCPOA.” On the central bank, that was done after the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA. You guys know it’s core to the capacity of the United States fulfilling its commitments under the JCPOA to facilitate Iran’s ability to access some of their own revenues. This is one of the things that drives me crazy. We wrote them a check for X billion dollars. No, that is central to the formula JCPOA. It doesn’t work without that. I don’t think anybody should be surprised that they’re looking at this question of the Central Bank, because it gets to whether the United States and the P5+1 can basically just live up to our own obligations under the JCPOA.
[55:21] Rich: Wait, so this is a huge, huge, huge issue because you sold the Iran deal on this basis. If you’re saying that we have the right to impose terrorism sanctions but not on any bank that makes Iran money. Those banks are immune from terrorism sanctions because they make Iran money but they can be used to finance terrorism. That means the deal is providing a blanket immunity on terrorism finance. We are not allowed to impose terrorism sanctions.
[55:49] Ben: I don’t think so. Rich, you and I have a different view of this. I don’t think that’s the case, because if you look at the web of sanctions that continue to exist for Iranians, they were not even when we were implementing the deal, precisely because there are so many secondary sanctions. There are so many punishments that can meted out, not just on the Iranians but on people who do business with sanctioned entities and individuals in Iran, precisely because of that, they were not getting some flood of investment from around the world, even when we were in the deal.
[56:21] Rich: That’s a market risk issue. That’s not the technical, “Can we impose sanctions?” We were told we can impose sanctions.
[56:26] Ben: We can. We actually can. I would never rule anything out. By the way, we also built in the whole snapback so that all the sanctions can snap back. Not me, I leave it to the Biden administration. I’m sure they would say– Again, I don’t speak for them. I don’t really know. I’m not talking to Rob.
[56:48] Jarrod: He’s got a book to sell.
[56:49] Ben: Yes, exactly. They probably think I’m a pain in the ass too, at this point.
[56:54] Rich: Tell Rob come on. He’s welcome on. We can talk about it on the show.
[56:57] Ben: I think the whole point here, and Rich, you understand this as a sanctions expert, is there is such an intricate web of sanctions that there is a capacity to provide them the relief that was agreed to under the JCPOA while still going after individuals and entities and having a broader chilling effect so that it’s not just open for business here in Iran. It just says I think if they get back in the JCPOA they will say we reserve the right unilaterally to do whatever we think is necessary. They’re not going to rule out sanctioning any entity in Iran in a post JCPOA 2.0 world.
[57:36] Rich: I think that’s exactly what Rob and I were saying, and what you are saying, that you will rule out sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran for terrorism because it would deny them revenue.
[57:43] Ben: I would not say that we’d rule that out. What I’m saying is that if we’re going to get back into the deal, we have to return to the terms of the deal that we walked away from. It wasn’t the Iranians who walked away from deal; it was Trump who walked away from the deal in 2018. We have to return–
[57:58] Rich: An interesting modification. The idea would be you have to lift those sanctions to get back to day one of implementation but then you still believe we could reimpose sanctions for terrorism. If that conduct continued, you could reimpose those sanctions even on the Central Bank of Iran.
[58:14] Ben: No American policymaker should or would I think rule out any particular sanction. I do think though that there’s these two issues that you’ve identified that we just have a difference on, which is; one, was this flurry of sanctions towards the end of the Trump administration excessive and intended to make it more difficult to return to the JCPOA? I think so, you probably don’t. Two, how can you have pulled out of an agreement that you negotiated, the United States government, and then negotiate the re-entry to that deal not starting from the baseline of where that deal stood in 2018 when the United States pulled out. Look, there are going to be additional sanctions I’m sure that were put in place post JCPOA withdrawal that stay in place too. The very tough job that Rob has to figure out is what is necessary and fair to get back into this deal and what is necessary and fair in terms of obviously we’re preserving our capacity to sanction on non-nuclear related issues. I would also say that if you are the US president and you’re assessing what is more important to me. This again I think, Rich, is where you and I have a difference. What is most important to me probably if I’m the US president, certainly Barack Obama, I can only speak for him, is that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons and that we have verification of that, that we are rolling back their program to JCPOA levels from where they are now or where they were in 2015. That policy objective is more important than one particular terrorism-related designation that we’re going to make because we have so many terrorism related designations that we are going to be able to continue to use that tool and continue to deny resources to the Iranians, never in totality but you have to be able to say–Saying that we were going to deny ourselves the capacity to have a nuclear deal because we just want to sanction these people is a view. It’s a maximum pressure view. My criticism of that is I don’t see any evidence that that affects Iranian behavior.
[1:00:37] Rich: That’s not really what it is, right? This is based on conduct.
[1:00:40] Ben: Rich, no this is really important. This is the core difference. Sanctions are not an end in themselves. I hear sanctions-
[1:00:46] Rich: Correct, I agree with you. We agree on that.
[1:00:47] Ben: -described as an achievement. No. The end is using sanctions. We could sanction anybody. We’ve sanctioned Cuba to the end of the world and it’s achieved nothing.
[1:00:59] Rich: I agree with you. I don’t agree with you on Cuba but I agree with you on the point that sanctions are not an end in of itself. However, sanctions on a bank do stop finance of terrorism, and the budgets obviously of Hamas and Hezbollah did go down during the sanctions period. They will go back up when you relieve the sanctions. That’s just how sanctions work. We could talk about this for a while. I do want to ask just a couple of questions.
[1:01:22] Jarrod: Then we’ll get to the lightning round, okay, Rich?
[1:01:24] Rich: It’s coming. It’s coming, it’s coming. I know. I have so many questions. I’ll narrow this down.
[1:01:30] Jarrod: I think you and Ben should get a podcast.
[1:01:33] Rich: It could be fun.
[1:01:34] Jarrod: Right. Okay.
[1:01:34] Rich: Here’s my question, would you support nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia for Saudi Arabia to have a nuclear program in which they enrich uranium on their own soil?
[1:01:46] Ben: No.
[1:01:48] Rich: Would you support amending the 123 Agreement with the UAE to allow the Emirates to enrich uranium on their own soil?
[1:01:55] Ben: No. Look I–
[1:01:58] Rich: The obvious question I’m coming to, why on earth would you accept an Iranian enrichment program if your answer to the first two were no?
[1:02:06] Ben: We’re not the one’s building– We’re not providing them with the inputs for their nuclear program, Rich. I would love for there to be no enrichment capacity whatsoever inside of Iran. We’re dealing with reality. Policymakers have to deal with the world as it is to use the title of my first book. Yes, I’d prefer there be no enrichment whatsoever but it’s not like the United States is through some agreement providing that enrichment capacity into Iran. What we’re trying to do is limit that enrichment capacity, put it under exceptional verification and monitoring measures to make sure that they’re meeting their obligations. The 123 Agreement is a very different beast than the JCPOA. The JCPOA is not a 123 Agreement.
[1:02:57] Rich: If we wanted to stand for something as a common non-proliferation policy as a gold standard of no enrichment then why wouldn’t we continue to demand Iran’s halt to enrichment?
[1:03:11] Ben: Because I would rather have the restrictions of the JCPOA than have a policy that is never going to achieve its objective. That’s a recipe for Iran continuing to develop its enrichment capacity until it has a nuclear weapon.
[1:03:23] Rich: In 2031 under the sunsets, of course, they’re allowed to enrich as much as they want up to weapons grade.
[1:03:29] Ben: As we’ve said a million and a half times, all the same options are available to the United States at any point in the duration of the JCPOA to determine that we want to reimpose sanctions on the central bank if we so choose. Military options are all available. You hear this from Israeli military planners. This is what drives me insane, Rich. If the argument is that there are circumstances that could take place in 10 or 15 years from the original negotiation of the JCPOA, why would you then pull out of the deal so those circumstances happen today? Which is what’s happened since we pulled out of the deal. Even Israeli military planners tell you like, “I’m worried about those sunset provisions but I’d rather pocket the 10 years and worry about it in 10 years.”
[1:04:20] Rich: JCPOA which didn’t know there was a nuclear archive, which didn’t know there were nuclear sites, which didn’t know there’s nuclear material, which by the way there is still an NPT investigation going on today which you didn’t know about in 2015.
[1:04:32] Ben: We did. Most of those files were rooted in years and years before. They weren’t about present activity. You’re talking about like past activity.
[1:04:41] Rich: No. You knew in 2015 that Iran was concealing undeclared nuclear material in sites that we’re just learning about thanks to that material?
[1:04:50] Ben: I’m not going to talk about exactly what I knew in 2015, you know that. There’s no way I’m going to talk about that.
[1:04:54] Rich: I’m pretty sure you didn’t know.
[1:04:57] Ben: I’m not going to say I knew everything that Prime Minister Netanyahu was going to publicize but let’s just say that the United States government did a lot of homework about the Iranian nuclear program.
[1:05:09] Rich: Let me just say that thanks to Israeli intelligence somehow doing, which will be a great Netflix movie, going and finding that archive, we have an active NPT investigation today that didn’t exist in 2015.
[1:05:20] Ben: Which is great. Again, the JCPOA didn’t foreclose any of that. That’s the thing. What I don’t understand about these arguments is like the JCPOA didn’t foreclose all these other policy options and investigatory options and the rest of it, it just said we’d rather live in a world in which Iran has these limits on enrichment capacity, limits on it centrifuges, this soup to nuts inspections regime, and all that other stuff is still available. I’ve never understood this.
[1:05:53] Rich: If all those things were true I would sign up in a heartbeat. Jarrod, lighting round.
[1:05:57] Jarrod: Okay. Ben, we like to leave with a little bit of a lighthearted round here, where we ask a couple of questions to learn a little bit more about folks. The first question I have is, do you have a favorite Yiddish word? Growing up in Manhattan I’m assuming you do. We’ve had you and you wouldn’t be the first person to use profanity on this podcast, you should feel free to do it. Maybe not in direct relation to my co-host.
[1:06:26] Ben: I like the sound of the language. Even though it’s just lost the meaning, but I just love the word shvitzing. I still say that about sweating because it’s a better word than sweating is shvitzing.
[1:06:41] Jarrod: Or to go to the shvitz.
[1:06:42] Ben: Yes, exactly. It’s just a great word.
[1:06:45] Rich: Or I have a shvitz in my house. What is your favorite Jewish food?
[1:06:50] Ben: Hey, that’s a really good question.
[1:06:53] Jarrod: [unintelligible 01:06:53] right there.
[1:06:57] Ben: I have to say it’s because my grandmother made it particularly well is matzo ball soup.
[1:07:02] Jarrod: Okay, that’s a solid answer.
[1:07:03] Rich: Very traditional.
[1:07:05] Ben: Or a Zabar’s babka, but that’s a different– Chocolate babka from Zabar’s, man.
[1:07:10] Jarrod: Oh, there you go.
[1:07:11] Ben: I still order that delivered to my house in LA.
[1:07:13] Jarrod: Oh, that’s awesome.
[1:07:15] Ben: They have these gift baskets.
[1:07:16] Jarrod: Other than After the Fall, what should we be reading that you’re reading right now?
[1:07:23] Ben: There’s a great book that I read while I was writing this book, because doing deep reading on authoritarianism is not a fun read. I read a book called Darkness over Germany. It was written during the ’30s by a British woman who went and just traveled around and interviewed ordinary Germans, teachers, business people, people who were not really Nazis but we’re making decisions about whether to resist, whether to acquiesce. It’s just a fascinating insight into how people rationalize complicity and passivity. “Well, if I quit my job, there’ll be someone worse.” The priests will have to put pictures of Hitler over the altar saying, “Well, if I refuse to do that, then I can’t preach to my flock.” Teachers thinking like, “If I refuse to teach the Nazi propaganda, then who else will teach my kids?” You just feel because it was written in the moment it wasn’t retrospective, it’s just this amazing document of a society allowing itself to be consumed, and a warning for all of us about it can happen anywhere. Darkness Over Germany, it’ll blow your mind.
[1:09:08] Rich: A warning to both sides.
[1:09:10] Ben: Yes.
[1:09:11] Jarrod: Yes, absolutely. One last one. If Wikipedia were to be believed you once interned on the mayoral campaign of Rudy Giuliani. I would tell you that there’s no shame in that because I went to intern for Jesse Helms when I was in college, so I think I have you beat. If I said Rudy Giuliani, what’s the first word that would come to mind?
[1:09:34] Ben: Now?
[1:09:36] Jarrod: Right now as we sit here.
[1:09:36] Ben: Nuts.
[1:09:38] Jarrod: [laughs]
[1:09:39] Ben: Dude, I was paid staff on that campaign. I actually worked my way up from being an intern. I don’t want to say it was a conservative Republican, but that was 97, Giuliani was obviously not the figure he was today. I worked for an amazing woman named Sunny Mindel, who was his communications director.
[1:10:06] Jarrod: Oh, Sunny, sure. A legend.
[1:10:08] Ben: A total legend. She would chain smoke cigarettes and curse out reporters and then laugh with the reporters. It was this hard edge education in politics in New York politics and union politics and ethnic politics. I went to a left-wing high school on Upper East Side and I’m a bit of country in speak, so I zag right a little bit because I didn’t like to conform to the conventional surroundings I had. I write about this. I’m just going to say something embarrassing here. I was already beginning to my journey leftward around this time, in part, because then I had gone to college in Texas. Then I was rebelling against that dynamic. I was going through that moved towards the last, but I was supposed to work at city hall in the Giuliani administration in the next summer, the summer of ’98. I got fired before I started that job because I had gotten a summon, and I’m just going to own this on the Jewish Insider podcast, turn down if you have kids, for public urination. Let’s just say I was out with friends. You guys are New Yorkers, if you’re like barking 19, 20-year-old, you are a meathead, you’re an idiot. You do something stupid. You get that ticket. By the way I’m also mindful that I was like a white guy, so I got a ticket. It could be worse. That was not in line with the law and order ethos of the Giuliani administration. One grade, what if of history is, what if Ben Rhodes went to work in the Giuliani city hall administration and started some career in that way. I tell the story in my book. This leads nicely into part with my book. Then by 2001 I was working in democratic politics in New York. I was working for a city council campaign of a woman named Diane arena who was basically running for the Vito Lopez machine in Brooklyn. Peter Lopez who became the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic party and then had his own fall from grace because all these kinds of sexual harassment allegations came out. This is a book that somehow has–and New Yorkers will appreciate this–a book about global nationalism authoritarianism and how we got here. Also has the names Sonny Mendell, Vito Lopez, Rudy Giuliani and Diana Reyna in it. That’s my life story right there.
[1:12:56] Jarrod: Ben Rhodes author of After the Fall, former deputy national security advisor for president Barack Obama. Thanks so much for joining us on the podcast. Great to have your welcome here anytime. Rich every time I think we can’t get to a more weighty and potentially more uncomfortable space, we do it every week that was a great conversation. I don’t think there’s been a fuller accounting and a fuller conversation about diverging worldviews as it relates to Israel, the United States, the Obama administration in the Middle East probably ever. What do you think?
[1:13:34] Rich: Listen, he has become a polarizing figure for many and I give him credit for coming on and taking our questions. I think it was a thoughtful discussion. I think we highlighted some key stark differences in worldview. Would have loved to delve in a little more into JCPOA but there’s only so much JCPOA you can do in an hour. What I would say is a couple of takeaways. Number one there is a clear tension on the left in the progressive circles between the lack of inclusion and diversity, equity, treatment of minorities LGBTQ women, ethnic-religious minorities within societies like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hamas run Gaza, Hezbollah, and the values that those progressives preach. The fact that they line up with them a little bit more on foreign policy. That’s clearly a tension that I took away. Number two on the JCPOA re-entry fight, this issue of terrorism sanctions is also a clear problem for the Biden administration. They’re going to have to clarify to Congress whether or not the US has a right to impose terrorism sanctions on the central bank, the Iranian oil company and others because it has justified the evidentiary basis is there. We were told in 2015 we could do that.
[1:15:05] Jarrod: Listen, I agree. We’ve been talking about at least the first question for quite a while. I think I liked the way Ben put it when he talked about or maybe I put it when we talked about the progressives wanting an end state to the conflict. What do we do has been put it with the 7 million Palestinians who are living in the west bank and Gaza. What is their status and I think that the longer that remains unresolved the harder and harder it’s going to be for pro-Israel Democrats like myself. I think I also liked this insight of hearing about Ben Rhodes as an AIPAC holding an AIPAC donor card. I don’t think that’s ever been talked about before but maybe he still gets the newsletter who knows?
Anyways we appreciate him coming on. Appreciate the fact that he has a new book coming out and appreciate him spending the time with us here on Jewish insider. If you have any comments questions show ideas and tips. Send us an email at [email protected] Please come follow us on Twitter @JIpodcast. If we’re on the Clubhouse hope you’re hanging out with us and remember to follow and subscribe to the limited liability podcast on your podcast. Listening medium of choice.
This is the Limited Liability Podcast. Thanks so much for listening and see you next time.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett joins the ‘Limited Liability Podcast’
In this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast,” hosts Richard Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by Rep. Stacey Plaskett for a frank discussion on Black-Jewish relations in America and representing a U.S. territory in Congress.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Delegate Stacey Plaskett is the non-voting member of Congress from the United States Virgin Islands, a dear friend of mine, and we’re really thankful to have her on the podcast to talk about lots going on today. Why don’t we start off with, Delegate Plaskett, what is it like to be a non voting member of Congress?
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Well, I think that’s an interesting way of putting it, I would say it’s a limited voting. And the limited vote depends on who’s in power, how much of that limit is there. So all members of territories, or as I would say, all members of the American colonies have a right of voting in committees. And so we vote fully in committees. And when the democrats have control of the House, we vote on the floor on amendments. And when we are on the Committee of the Whole. We do not vote on final passage. When Republicans are in control, then there is no voting on the floor, and we are relegated to the votes and committees and just doing the other business of members of Congress. That is, you know, passing, sponsoring legislation, co sponsoring, debating, etc, etc. So one of the things that I have just noted, it’s interesting, I was talking to a group earlier today, is that in this position, I feel like I am, it’s the same as my life. Because I sit on the floor quite often and find myself being an observer rather than an actor. And I think it gives me a greater sense of members and strategy and thoughts about members than other members of Congress have. I can sit there and I know which member of New Jersey is going to vote first and which ones are waiting to see who another particular member votes ahead of them. Which members of the front line are waiting for the last minute because ‘I don’t want to take the vote,’ are waiting to be whipped by the majority leader or the whip team to ask them to vote a certain way. You know, it gives you a much greater observation. But it also means that you’ve got to work harder because you don’t have those votes to negotiate with, with other colleagues and with the leadership. And so you’ve got to really be creative and a hustler. To get your skill done.
You’ve achieved quite a bit of notoriety for a delegate from a territory. You know, you don’t often hear a ton of news out of the territorial delegations, but you’re one of the house impeachment managers, you’re on Ways and Means. You alluded to it a minute ago when you said you’re a hustler. How is it to do advocacy as somebody who is using all the instruments of soft power? It seems like you’ve mastered this, but I’d be interested to hear more about how that actually works and how you make those deals.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Soft power. Huh, soft power. I don’t know. I just have always felt that, you know, I was raised in a house where my mother explained to me that you’ve got to be better than everybody else. You’ve got to have more hustle than everybody. I’m putting you in the same places where people have much more resources than you and you’ve got to figure out a way to come out on top. I don’t want you to come home in the middle, or average or at the bottom, you’ve got to be on top. And so that’s always just kind of given me a drive. I came here knowing that I was going to make this position very different than the position had been previously. I wanted to be outside of the box of what was expected, I asked not to be put on the same committees that the other territorial members had been placed on, because I wanted to forge a very different path. And interestingly, I think what I’m doing is so much about what we, as Caribbean people do in America. From the first Caribbean people who came to this country and offered support in its formation, we have always kind of had a chip on our shoulder and felt that we have more to prove. From our boy, Alexander Hamilton, right on through to today, we have to step outside of the box. People are looking at us a little askew. And so we’ve got to prove ourselves. And, you know, that’s the only way I feel that my constituents, who are often completely underserved, forgotten, and behind the eight ball, are going to get ahead.
When you look at other territories that have taken the step to have referendums to say, you know, ‘do you want to be a state not just a territory?’ Puerto Rico obviously comes top of mind, we had the referendum last Fall with with the ‘yes’ succeeding narrowly. The last referendum, I can think about the Virgin Islands is probably over 20 years ago, maybe there is one more recent. Is that something that’s come up? Has anybody thought about doing that? Where do you sort of stand on that idea of statehood for the Virgin Islands,
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
So we just recently had a referendum that we would adopt the Congressional Organic Act as our Constitution, so that we can amend that. That passed overwhelmingly. And for the last two and a half years, I’ve been petitioning our local government, our local legislature and our governor, asking them if they would allocate a really small amount of money to educate Virgin Islanders on what the different status options are, and the pros and cons of each one. You know, what does it really mean, financially and economically, to be independent? What does it mean to be a state in terms of the politics of that? Or to be a Commonwealth? Or you know, any of the other possibilities that are there. Not so that people are just getting that off of the internet or off of somebody on a talk show, but really having a true understanding about each one of those and what that means. And then for us to have a referendum on it in the next two years. Two years from now, we will be 175 years from our emancipation from chattel slavery. And I believe that’s a prime time for us to, as a people, say, internally, this is what I want us to be. I can have my own ideas about where we should be, but that is not necessarily the will of the people. And I think that’s what should drive the decision making. And then, my final thought to that was that whatever that outcome is of that referendum, that should be the position that whomever represents us in Washington at that time, as well as the governor and the local government should be pushing for.
And to ask you a question a little bit closer to home, for me, at least. You know, I’m one of those obnoxious people who thinks the world ends at the Hudson River. So you did spend quite a bit of time growing up in New York City, in the five boroughs, and between there and St. Croix, we’ve talked a lot on the show about the relationship between the far-left and antisemitism and how some, you know, have tried to take the imprimatur of the Black Lives Matter movement and stretch it beyond its breaking point into something that is not particularly related to the Israel-Palestinian .
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Do you talk about the far-right’s antisemitism?
I talk about the far-right’s antisemitism all the time. But what is your take on the state of Black-Jewish relations generally, as as somebody who spent a lot of time in New York and as an observer and a thoughtful person about this, is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What can we be doing to build that relationship? As people like, Rich and I, have a big bully pulpit in the Jewish community. Knock on wood. What should we be talking about?
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
That’s an interesting question. You know, I grew up Between Bushwick and Williamsburg, you know, so you’re getting different groups of the Jewish community, some which actually don’t even get along with each other, right. And then moving home to the Virgin Islands, which is a very interesting place, because we have one of the oldest, continually running synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, started by a Sephardic Jewish community. And then we also has a have a very sizable, Palestinian-Jordanian community as well, in the Virgin Islands. And they both coexist very well together. And so what is the position that I have taken on that as an African person of African descent, as someone who lives in America and African-American and Afro-Caribbean person? You know, I do think there are different groups of Jewish and Black communities think very differently about this, right? I think back on the protests this past summer, and there were Jewish people who were out there repping the fact that they were Jewish and supporting that Black lives do matter. And so when you say the term Black Lives Matter, are you talking about an organization or a theory? And for me, it’s a theory that, yes, our lives matter. And that’s what we’re trying to get across that until Black Lives Matter, then all lives don’t matter. And there were Jewish people, you know, Amish people who supported that. But there’s also, I think, a dichotomy and a belief that I brush up against, and that worries me, that my Jewish brothers and sisters think that if I support the existence of Palestine, that means that I don’t support them as Jewish people. And so that’s worrisome to me, like how do you navigate that? How do I believe that there should be a two state solution? That what is happening on both ends are problematic. That there should be a ceasefire, that we need to have peace and not feel like I am saying that one side is better or the other side is not? I’m supportive of the Jewish state, but I did not believe that Netanyahu is necessarily the best leader of the Jewish state at this time. I believe in a Palestinian state, but I condemn Hamas. So does one cancel out the other? I’m not sure. And that’s for me, to ask my brothers and sisters who are Jewish and that are of Palestinian descent, to educate me, and to help me figure that out, in the same way that I asked my white friends — I’m happy when they want to be educated, and want to be thoughtful about their position on Black people in America.
Yeah, I think, and I’ve contemplated this in the last few days and we’ve had lots of conversations. My synagogue was very active, like you talked about, in, you know, we’re in the middle of COVID lockdowns and, you know, we saw what happened with George Floyd and the protest movement started and people were very moved to go out to the streets and join and show their support. And, you know, they’re connected now to a lot of feeds, a lot of influencers, a lot of movements, networks, social organizations, that they got involved with from last summer, and they just, I think assumed, ‘okay, you know, we’re in solidarity here.’ And now with rockets raining down on Israel, we’re seeing real venom from some of these social media feeds within social organizations of comparing people who support Israel, to white supremacists and Nazis and the language — I think Jarrod was referring to — the language of anti-racism theory being hijacked for a different agenda. I think that’s what worries a lot of people is to see that kind of language which then moves from what you’re talking about, which is, ‘I don’t agree with this selected government. I support the right of a Jewish state to exist obviously in safety and security. I don’t like Netanyahu,’ to There’s a fundamental hostility in some of these messaging of the idea of a Jewish state that defends itself.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
I think you’ll find…I hear what you’re saying. I think also for a lot of Black people were concerned, because we also see Palestinians as Brown people in some respects. And so that, in some ways, makes us feel that we have an obligation to use our platform to maybe speak for a group that does not have the same platform as we do. And while I have a discussion on the floor, like, ‘Well, you know, not every Jewish person is white.’ The general consensus or cultural message that has been put to African-Americans is that Palestinians more likely represent the type of oppression that Black Americans have had, or Native Americans have had. It’s similar, as opposed to what, you know, a Jewish state created by the predominantly Ashkenazi European Jews.
It’s so stunning to me, because I reflect…and by the way, thank you for this conversation. This is such an important conversation that we haven’t had…I remember as a kid at the Passover Seder and the comparisons of the Civil Rights movement to the Passover story, and that being one of the major connection points for Black Jewish relations. And we remember, you know, that the Jewish leaders who were out there in the streets, you know, side by side with Civil Rights leaders at the time, and, and that sort of imagery, that song, you know, the Black Moses, right like that, there’s a lot of these sorts of things we talk about, where, where we bring that that comparison together. And yet, it’s evolved over the last few decades, it really has, into more of what you’re saying, where, I think that the early Jewish state had that sort of feeling of camaraderie, and somehow we’ve evolved into this narrative which has shifted. Even though, to your point, Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews and integrated Ethiopian Jews into Israel, the Misrathi Jews, you know, from all around North Africa and the Middle East. I don’t know how we I don’t know how we fight back that narrative, I don’t know.
And I would just observe, you know, the person who in this world taught me the most about the meaning of Passover was not a rabbi or a Hebrew school teacher, it was Barack Obama, when he pulled out a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation at the conclusion of the Seder, and sat in his home and made us read from the Emancipation Proclamation to really understand the American nature of the holiday. But, you know, I think the first step is having conversations like this, right, that are slightly uncomfortable, but very real. And, and confronting the issues. And this is how I’ve gotten to know the delegate and sort of my day job. It’s not to be shy, not to shy away from uncomfortable conversation.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Yeah. I wonder, you know, for a lot of my colleagues when we’re having the discussion, you know, they bring up and help me with the pronunciation, the Nakba. Right? They talk about the displacement of the Palestinians, as a major inflection point in their shift in attitude, and I don’t know what you guys think of that. Can we come? Can we recognize a point when that has changed which could maybe be instructive to us about how to reevaluate that relationship?
Yeah, the Nakba is a troubling term, for me at least, because the reference historically is to the creation of the State of Israel. And so if somebody says, you know, ‘we were triggered by the Nakba,’ or you know, ‘we have to, we have to respond to the Nakba.’ To me, and again, maybe it’s becoming sort of general terminology that’s just being used without knowing the etymology, to me that represents ‘we have a problem that the Jewish state was created in 1948.’ And and in its root there, you know, to us again, as Jews, that can be sounding like antisemitism as well. ‘You don’t even believe that Jews have a right to exist as a Jewish state.’ Fundamentally, that’s a problem. But I guess the question is, where can we go as a community to have these sort of dialogues, you know, whether it’s closed door, you know, if it’s with the Black Caucus, if it’s with individual members. It sounds like either it’s Israel’s problem as a government, and obviously, I’m not here to advise the Israeli government. But as an American-Jewish community, I feel like we need to be doing more to bring some modern education to members and information of ‘Here is the diversity that exists in Israeli society. And by the way, here’s the lack of diversity that exists in the Palestinian territories.’ No LGBTQ rights, flourishing LGBTQ rights in Israel. No women’s rights in the Palestinian territories flourish and women’s rights in Israel. I think there’s a great progressive message here. It’s just it’s just getting lost somehow.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Yeah, you’re assuming that all Black people are progressive?
No, I’m not saying that. Trust me as a Republican. I welcome as many conservatives to the party, trust me.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
I’m sure that members, particularly Black Caucus members are happy to have those conversations. I think what some of them may feel is that they’re not conversations, they’re being told what they are supposed to think or are supposed to do. And, you know, numbers and resources are being utilized as bludgeons to make them think they have to take a certain position.
I think, Rich, we should, use our bully pulpit to help advise the Jewish community as they engage with progressive members black and white, and any color.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Some of us moderate members too.
Can I ask a House politics question, because we have a member of Congress on and I just I, I got to ask you, did McCarthy just sign a blood oath with President Trump from what he asked of Liz Cheney? And are the Cheneys going to have their revenge? Like, how is this gonna play out? It’s shocking to me that this all played out the way it is, but what’s your take on it?
By the way, Chicagoans, when you say blood oath, we can only think of ‘The Untouchables.’
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
You know, I don’t. I don’t have an opinion on the Liz Cheney portion, as much. I mean, I understand her removal, because she isn’t following the message of leadership. And it’s very clear what the message is right now, of the House Republicans. I’m not saying all Republicans, but the House Republicans and her inability to agree with them about what happened on January 6 is a reason for her not to be in leadership. What I find more shocking is today, as we are about to vote on this commission, is that, McCarthy is now putting another member out to dry, because he had John Katko, who was the ranking member, the Republican on Homeland Security, negotiate for several months now, what this commission is supposed to look like. And he was able to get the concessions that McCarthy wanted only now for McCarthy to turn around and say, I’m not going to support it. Of course, he can’t support it, because the leader of his party, which is still Donald Trump, has said he doesn’t want to support it. And so, you know, I allow them to let them continue to have that battle. We’ve got our own issues on our side of the aisle. We’ve got, the far-left, going after moderate, thoughtful members, making people take the plank on issues that in some instances is going to cost them their seat. So those are the things that I’m concerned about on my own side of the aisle, and you know, keeping my head on a swivel to make sure that some of the wackadoodles on that side, on the other side. Like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Boebert and some of the others recognize that they can’t step to everybody they think they can talk crap to. I’ll keep it…we have to stay clean.
Not in Yiddish, you’re allowed to swear.
Yeah, you’re allowed to curse in Yiddish.
We’ve had Congressmen do that before. I actually have a follow up because you’ve said a couple of times, you’re a moderate, we know you were formerly a member of the Republican Party, a Republican appointee in the previous administration. You know, when you look at that state of polarization right now on both sides, is there a middle that exists, that you’re a part of the you’re talking to other members, you’re doing bipartisan things that just we’re just not watching because it’s not good television? Or is it very much stressed even on that level?
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
It’s stressed, but there’s some going on. But it’s not interesting. You know, it doesn’t make the news. I am in leadership with the New Democratic Coalition, which are the pragmatic, you know, moderate Democrats. And we just had a press conference on legislation, you know, a series of legislation that we’ve been working on with Republicans that we’re hoping the President will put in his jobs plan, you know, and it’s infrastructure bill, but I’m sure CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are not going to put that on the air. But even within that, Richard is extremely. There’s a heightened tension here in Congress every day on the floor, you can feel the tension. In previous years I would have stepped in an elevator with any member of congress and said, ‘Good afternoon, what’s going on? How’s your family?’ There are some, some members I won’t even get in the elevator with. At this point, I just don’t want to share any space with them.
Can you tell us about your experience on January 6? Tell us where you were and how that all went down for you?
Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Yeah, I mean, I do not have the same trauma some of my other colleagues have. I was in my office. Was about to go to the floor. Had actually just put on my suit jacket and was walking out of the office when I was stopped at the front by one of my staffers and told, ‘They just told us to lock the door and you can’t leave the office.’ And so it’s interesting, because I look at the levels of trauma that are actually real trauma that I see in some of the members. And the ones who were up on that balcony, who for 45 minutes could not leave, were only Democrats and members of the press were up in the balcony area. They say they have their own support group counseling for some of them that they’re going through. You know, I kind of watched from television, went down into the holding area where all the members were at a later point, and eventually went back to my office. That evening, seeing what the Capitol looked like — the windows knocked out, feces on the walls in the Capitol. It was horrendous. It was a shock. Really a shock.