The Emperor’s Old Clothes

Everybody is talking about the first 100 days of Barack Obama. And there’s a lot to talk about.

Like a young bull he stormed into the arena. A deluge of new ideas in every direction, a tsunami of practical initiatives, some of which have already begun to be implemented. Clearly he had been thinking about them for a long time and intended to put them into practice from his first moment in office. He put his team together long ago, and his people started to act even before his triumphal entrance to the White House. During the first days he appointed the ministers, most of whom he had designated long before — this seems to be an effective cabinet, whose members are up to their tasks.

Everything according to a rule that was laid down long ago: what a new president does not initiate in his first 100 days, he will not accomplish later on. In the beginning everything is easier, because the public is ready for change.

An Israeli cannot, of course, resist comparing Obama to Binyamin Netanyahu, our old-new Prime Minister, who did not exactly storm into the arena. He crawled into it.

One could have expected that Netanyahu would trump even Obama in this respect.

After all, he has already been there. Ten years ago he was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair, gathering experience. And from experience – especially bad experience – one can and should learn.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s victory was no great surprise. The only unexpected part of the election results was that his opponent, Tzipi Livni, won slightly more votes than he, but not enough to prevent him from attaining – together with his partners – a majority.

He had, therefore, a lot of time to prepare for his ascent to power, consult experts, perfect plans in every field, choose his team, think about the appointment of ministers from his own and allied parties.

Yet, incredibly, it appears that nothing, really nothing, of all this happened. No plans, no assistants, no team, no nothing.

To this very minute, Netanyahu has not succeeded in putting together his personal team – a fundamental precondition for any effective action. He does not have a chief of staff, a most important position. In his office, chaos reigns supreme.

The choice of ministers threw up one scandal after another. Not only did he put together a hideously bloated cabinet (39 ministers and deputy ministers, most of them flaunting fictitious titles) but almost all the important ministries are stuck with totally unsuited persons.

At a time of world-wide economic crisis he appointed to the Treasury a Minister who has no idea about economics, apparently thinking that he himself would manage the treasury – quite impossible for a man who is responsible for the state as a whole. The Ministry of Health got an orthodox rabbi as Deputy Minister. In the middle of a world-wide epidemic, we have no Minister of Health, and according to law the Prime Minister has to exercise this function, too. In almost all the other ministries – from Transportation to Tourism – there are incumbents who know nothing about their fields of responsibility and don’t even pretend to be interested in them – they are just waiting for an opportunity to move on to higher and better things.

No need to waste many words on the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to the Foreign Ministry. This professional scandalmonger provokes a daily scandal in this most sensitive area of government. The bull in the china shop has already succeeded into turning all the diplomats into small bullocks, each of which is running about and smashing the dishes in his vicinity. At the moment, they are busy messing up Israel’s relations with the EU.

All these appointments look like the desperate efforts of a cynical politician who does not care about anything other than returning to power, and then quickly putting together a cabinet, whatever its composition, paying any price to any party prepared to join him, sacrificing even the most vital interests of the state.

As far as plans are concerned, Netanyahu does not resemble Obama either. He has come to power without any plans in any field. One gets the impression that he has spent his years in opposition with his head in hibernation

A week ago he presented a grandiose “economic plan” for saving our economy from the ravages of the world economic crisis. Economists raised their eyebrows. The “plan” consists of little more than a collection of tired old slogans and a tax on cigarettes. His embarrassed assistants stuttered that it was only a “general outline”, not yet a plan, and that now they would start working on a real plan.

The public did not really worry about the lack of an economic plan. They have faith in improvisation, the wondrous Israeli talent that makes up for the inability to plan anything.

But in the political field, the situation is even worse. Because there the unpreparedness of Netanyahu meets the overpreparedness of Obama.

Obama has a plan for the restructuring of the Middle East, and one of its elements is an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on “Two States for Two Peoples”. Netanyahu argues that he is not in a position to respond, because he has no plan of his own yet. After all, he is quite new in office. Now he is working on such a plan. Very soon, in a week, or a month, or a year, he will have a plan, a real plan, and he will present it to Obama.

Or course, Netanyahu has a plan. It consists of one word, which he learned from his mentor, Yitzhak Shamir: “NO”. Or, more precisely, NO NO NO – the three no’s of the Israeli Khartoum: No peace, No withdrawal, No negotiations. (It will be remembered that the 1967 Arab summit conference in Khartoum, right after the Six-day War, adopted a similar resolution.)

The “plan” which he is working on does not really concern the essence of this policy, but only the packaging. How to present to Obama something that will not sound like “no”, but rather like “yes, but”. Something that all the serfs of the Israeli lobby in Congress and the media can swallow painlessly.

As a taster for the “plan”, Netanyahu has already presented one of its ingredients: the demand that the Palestinians and other Arabs must recognize Israel as “the State of the Jewish People”.

Most of the media in Israel and abroad have distorted this demand and reported that Netanyahu requires the recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State”. Either from ignorance or laziness, they obliterated the important difference between the two formulas.

This difference is immense. A “Jewish State” is one thing, a “State of the Jewish People” is something radically different.

A “Jewish State” can mean a state with a majority of citizens who define themselves as Jews and/or a state whose main language is Hebrew, whose main culture is Jewish, whose weekly rest day is Saturday, which serves only Kosher food in the Knesset cafeteria etc.

A “State of the Jewish People” is a completely different story. It means that the state belongs not only to its citizens, but to something that is called “the Jewish People” – something that exists both inside and outside of the country. That can have wide-ranging implications. For instance: the abrogation of the citizenship of non-Jews, as proposed by Lieberman. Or the conferring of Israeli citizenship on all the Jews in the world, whether they want it or not.

The first question that arises is: what does “the Jewish People” mean? The term “people” – “am” in Hebrew, Volk in German – has no accepted precise definition. Generally it is taken to mean a group of human beings who live in a specific territory and speak a specific language. The “Jewish People” is not like that.

Two hundred years ago it was clear that the Jews were a religious community dispersed throughout the world and united by religious beliefs and myths (including the belief in a common ancestry). The Zionists were determined to change this self-perception. “We are a people, one people”, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, wrote in German, using the word Volk.

The idea of “the State of the Jewish People” is decidedly anti-Zionist. Herzl did not dream of a situation in which a Jewish State and a Jewish Diaspora would coexist. According to his plan, all the Jews who wish to remain Jews would immigrate to their state. The Jews who prefer to live outside the state would stop being Jews and be absorbed into their host nations, finally becoming real Germans, Britons and Frenchmen. The vision of the “Visionary of the State” (as he is officially designated in Israel) was supposed, when put into practice, to bring about the disappearance of the Jewish Diaspora – the Jewish people outside the “Judenstaat”.

David Ben-Gurion was a partner to this vision. He stated that a Jew who does not immigrate to Israel is not a Zionist and should not enjoy any rights in Israel, except the right to immigrate there. He demanded the dismantling of the Zionist organization, seeing in it only the “scaffolding” for building the state. Once the state has been set up, he thought quite rightly, the scaffolding should be discarded.

Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the State of the Jewish People” is ridiculous, even as a tactic for preventing peace.

A state recognizes a state, not its ideology or political regime. Nobody recognizes Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the Hajj, as “the State of the Muslim Umma” (the community of believers.)

Moreover, the demand puts the Jews all over the world in an impossible position. If the Palestinians have to recognize Israel as “the State of the Jewish People”, then all the governments in the world must do the same. The United States, for example. That means that the Jewish US citizens Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, Obama’s closest advisors, are officially represented by the government of Israel. The same goes for the Jews in Russia, the UK and France.

Even if Mahmoud Abbas were persuaded to accept this demand – and thereby indirectly put in doubt the citizenship of a million and a half Arabs in Israel – I would oppose this strenuously. More than that, I would consider it an unfriendly act.

The character of the State of Israel must be decided by the citizens of Israel (who hold a wide range of opinions about this matter). Pending before the Israeli courts is an application by dozens of Israeli patriots, including myself, who demand that the state recognize the “Israeli nation”. We request the court to instruct the government to register us in the official Population Registration, under the heading “nation”, as Israelis. The government refuses adamantly and insists that our nation is Jewish.

I ask Mahmoud Abbas, Obama and everyone else who is not an Israeli citizen not to interfere in this domestic debate.

Netanyahu knows, of course, that nobody will take his demand seriously. It is quite obviously just another device to avoid serious peace negotiations. If he is compelled to drop it, it will not be long before he comes up with another.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx: “This is my pretext. If you don’t like it, well, I have a lot of others.”

Uri Avnery is a peace activist, journalist, and writer. Read other articles by Uri, or visit Uri's website.

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  1. Suthiano said on May 5th, 2009 at 3:12pm #

    John Kerry: is the junior United States Senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As the Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, he was defeated by 34 electoral votes in the 2004 presidential election by former President, George W. Bush. Senator Kerry is currently the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under Barack Obama. He supported the Iraq War Resolution and the Patriot Act. Donations received from Goldman Sachs: 1990: $13,500, 1996: $7,500, 2002: $18,000, 2004: $303,250

    Charles E. Schumer: Former congressman, current Senator, Schumer was a supporter of the Iraq War Resolution, is an AIPAC member, and is stridently pro-Israel. Donations received from Goldman Sachs: 1990: $15,500, 1992: $10,300, 1996: $42,000, 1998: $107,550, 2000: $99,500, 2002: $124,550, 2004: $58,040. Total: $457,400

    Arlen Specter: is an American lawyer and politician. He is the senior United States Senator from Pennsylvania. Elected in 1980, he is currently the 12th-most senior member of the U.S. Senate and the fifth oldest senator. Previously a centrist Republican, Spector joined the Democratic Party on April 28, 2009. At the recommendation of Representative Gerald R. Ford, he worked for the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As an assistant counsel for the commission, he authored or co-authored the controversial “single bullet theory,” which suggested the wounds to Kennedy and non-fatal wounds to Texas Governor John Connally were caused by the same bullet. He voted for the Iraq War Resolution. Donations received from Goldman Sachs: 1990: $9,000, 1998: $9,000, 2002: $30,000, 2004: $51,000, 2008: $47,600.

    Bill Clinton: served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 1992: $98,275, 1996: $43,384.

    George Bush Sr received from Goldman Sachs in 1992: $68,250.

    Joe Lieberman: is the junior United States Senator from Connecticut. Lieberman was first elected to the United States Senate in 1988, and was elected to his fourth term on November 7, 2006. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Lieberman was the Democratic candidate for Vice President. Lieberman voted for the Iraq War Resolution. Donations received from Goldman Sachs: 1992; $11,500, 1994: $31,250, 2004: $34,000, 2006: 33,950.

    Mitt Romney is an American businessman and former Governor of Massachusetts. Romney was CEO of Bain & Company, a management consulting firm, and co-founder of Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm. After his business career Romney was elected the 70th Governor of Massachusetts in 2002. Romney served one term and did not seek re-election in 2006; his term expired January 4, 2007. Romney was a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 2008 United States presidential election. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 1994: $19,750, 2008: $234,275.

    Henry Paulson served as the 74th United States Treasury Secretary and is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Board of Governors. He previously served as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Goldman Sachs. During that time period he donated the following $474,440 to political parties and campaigns:
    Cycle Total Soft Money Dems Repubs % to Dems % to Repubs
    1990 $5,250 $0 $1,000 $1,500 19% 29%
    1992 $17,500 $0 $3,500 $9,250 20% 53%
    1994 $12,240 $0 $-510 $5,000 -4% 41%
    1996 $80,000 $25,000 $15,250 $59,500 19% 74%
    1998 $27,500 $0 $1,500 $21,000 6% 76%
    2000 $72,250 $50,000 $12,000 $54,000 17% 75%
    2002 $71,500 $50,000 $1,500 $68,000 2% 95%
    2004 $92,500 $0 $11,000 $76,500 12% 83%
    2006 $95,700 $0 $9,800 $75,900 10% 79%

    Robert Rubin: served as the 70th United States Secretary of the Treasury during both the first and second Clinton administrations. Before his government service, he spent 26 years at Goldman Sachs. His most prominent post-government role was as Director and Senior Counselor of Citigroup, where he performed ongoing advisory and representational roles for the firm. From November to December 2007, he served temporarily as Chairman of Citigroup. One of his protégé’s was Current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

    Michael Paese, Goldman Sachs directory of government affairs: formerly top staffer to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., on the House Financial Services Committee chaired by Frank. He was a registered lobbyist for the Securities Industries and Financial Markets Association since he left Frank’s committee in September. He previously worked at JP Morgan and Mercantile Bankshares, and in between served as senior minority counsel at the Financial Services Committee.

    Mark Patterson, Goldman Sachs directory of government affairs (before Paese): now the Chief of Staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Patterson was a close Tom Daschle associate.

    Tom Daschle: is a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader. He is a member of the Democratic Party. Daschle, D-South Dakota, said the threat of Iraq’s weapons programs “may not be imminent. But it is real. It is growing. And it cannot be ignored.” And voted accordingly on the Iraq War Resolution. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 2004: $143,500.

    Sen. Evan Bayh: Bayh is up for re-election in 2010 and his top donor is Goldman Sachs. Goldman is also the top donor to Bayh over the course of his Congressional career, during which Bayh has received more than $4 million from the finance, insurance and real estate sectors. Bayh was an early supporter of the idea of removing Saddam from power, and voted for the Iraq War Resolution.

    Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada, Canada’s Central Bank: Carney had a thirteen-year career with Goldman Sachs in its London, Tokyo, New York and Toronto offices. His progressively senior positions included co-head of sovereign risk; executive director, emerging debt capital markets; and managing director, investment banking. He worked on South Africa’s post-apartheid venture into international bond markets, and was heavily involved in Goldman Sachs’s work with the 1998 Russian financial crisis.

    Barack Obama: Supported Iraq funding bills to keep the war going. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 2004: $58,000, 2008: $983,245

    Rahm Emmanuel is an American politician currently serving as White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama. He served previously as Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives, representing Illinois’s 5th congressional district from 2003 until his resignation in 2009 to take up his current position in the Obama Administration. His father, Benjamin M. Emanuel was a member of the Israeli terrorist group Irgun. Emanuel is a close friend of fellow Chicagoan David Axelrod, chief strategist for the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign. Axelrod signed the ketuba, a Jewish marriage contract, at Emanuel’s wedding, an honor that goes to a close friend. He holds a duel Israeli-U.S. citizenship. During the 2006 election, “if you toe the line for Rahm on the war, the money rains on you like manna from heaven and you are elevated to national celebrity status. But if you are anti-war, Rahm cuts you off at the wallet.” “Emanuel is not choosing proven fundraisers or winning candidates; he is choosing pro-war candidates” ( Money from Goldman Sachs: 2006: $18,800, 2008: $37,750.

    Jon Corzine is the Governor of New Jersey and a former United States Senator. In 1975 he moved to New Jersey to work for Goldman Sachs. He became Chairman and co-CEO of the firm where he worked until 1998. Below is money he donated to political parties and campaigns while co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, totaling $923,050:
    Cycle Total Soft Money Dems Repubs % to Dems % to Repubs
    1990 $7,750 $0 $2,250 $0 29% 0%
    1992 $60,750 $25,000 $52,750 $0 87% 0%
    1994 $79,250 $20,000 $70,500 $1,000 89% 1%
    1996 $266,750 $217,500 $255,500 $1,000 96% 0%
    1998 $507,300 $455,000 $502,300 $0 99% 0%
    Money received from Goldman Sachs: 2000: $554,900, 2002: $47,970.

    George W. Bush. President during 9/11. Launched the War in Iraq. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 2000: $137,499, 2004: $392,600.

    Al Gore: Money received from Goldman Sachs: 2000: $95,050

    Hillary Clinton is the 67th United States Secretary of State, serving in the administration of President Barack Obama. She was a United States Senator from New York from 2001 to 2009. As the wife of Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, she was the First Lady of the United States from 1993 to 2001. She was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2008 election. Clinton voted for the USA Patriot Act in October 2001. Clinton strongly supported the 2001 U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Clinton voted in favor of the October 2002 Iraq War Resolution. She was Senator of New York State during 9/11. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 2000: $88,170, 2004: $55,000, 2006: $138,570, 2008: $410,350.

    John McCain is the senior United States Senator from Arizona. He was the Republican nominee for president in the 2008 United States election. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, McCain supported Bush and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. He and then-Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman wrote the legislation that created the 9/11 Commission. He stated that Iraq was “a clear and present danger to the United States of America”, and voted accordingly for the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002. Money received from Goldman Sachs: 1998: $10,400, 2000: $67,320, 2004: $29,000, 2008: $230,095.

    Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York during 9/11, received the following money from Goldman Sachs: 2000: $40,000, 2008: $109,450.

    Jay Rockefeller: has served as a Democratic U.S. Senator from West Virginia since 1985. He was Governor of West Virginia from 1977 to 1985. He is a great-grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and was a vocal advocate for the war in Iraq. Donations received from Goldman Sachs: 1990: $15,000,

    Paul Volcker: is an American economist. He was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve under United States Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (from August 1979 to August 1987). He is currently chairman of the newly formed Economic Recovery Advisory Board under President Barack Obama. After leaving the Federal Reserve in 1987, he became chairman of the prominent New York investment banking firm, J. Rothschild, Wolfensohn & Co., a corporate advisory and investment firm in New York, run by James D. Wolfensohn, who was later to become president of the World Bank. As of October 2006, he is the current Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the influential Washington-based financial advisory body, the Group of Thirty, and is a member of the Trilateral Commission. He has had a long association with the Rockefeller family, not only with his positions at Chase Bank and the Trilateral Commission, but also through membership of the Trust Committee of Rockefeller Group, Inc. (RGI), which he joined in 1987. That entity managed, at one time, the Rockefeller Center on behalf of the numerous members of the Rockefeller clan.

    Alan Greenspan is an American economist and was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006. He is largely responsible for the current Recession. He currently works as a private advisor and providing consulting for firms through his company, Greenspan Associates LLC. Greenspan also has served as a corporate director for Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa); Automatic Data Processing, Inc.; Capital Cities/ABC, Inc.; General Foods, Inc.; J.P. Morgan & Co., Inc.; Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York; Mobil Corporation; and The Pittston Company. He was a director of the Council on Foreign Relations foreign policy organization between 1982 and 1988. He also served as a member of the influential Washington-based financial advisory body, the Group of Thirty in 1984.