January 12, 2021, virtual presentation, sponsored by The Temple, Atlanta,Ga. and the Center for Israel Education,
I have lightly edited the transcript from the video to add references, websites, and other small items for clarification, For some of the sources used in preparing this evening’s presentation, see the listing of items at the end of the transcript. – Ken Stein, January 15, 2021.
Rabbi Peter Berg: [00:00:00] Good evening, everybody, and welcome to our program. We’re excited to have so many people who are here with us this evening for one of our Tamid programs, one of our adult learning programs here at The Temple. Before we jump in formally, I’m Peter Berg, one of the rabbis here, and I want to take this opportunity to thank our co-chairs, Jo Ann Rau and Ronnie van Gelder, for helping to put this program together, and Elizabeth Foster from our education department here at The Temple.
[00:00:33] Our featured speaker is no stranger to not only The Temple family, but we have many guests who are joining us here on the call, a little bit of celebrity status. I can tell based on the number of people joining the call, but also he’s just that good. Our speaker, Dr. Kenneth Stein, is going to talk about options and possibilities in the upcoming Biden administration. This is not by any means a program that has any political agenda. We’re here to learn together and to support Israel together.
[00:01:07]One of the things that Ken has done so magnificently is helped thousands and thousands of people to learn about Israel. He has a résumé that would actually take me the entire hour to read, and I actually want to get to him. So I’m not going to read the whole résumé. But I’ll tell you that he is president of the Center for Israel Education, CIE (www.israeled.org), Director of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel. Since 1977, he has taught modern Middle Eastern history and Political Science and Israel studies at Emory, where he is a very popular professor.
[00:01:41]The establishment of the institute in ’98 was the first permanent center in the United States created for the study of modern Israel. So it’s really something to celebrate and something that others across the country have tried to emulate. And an offshoot of that institute is now the CIE, which was established in 2008, and I’m a proud board member of the Center for Israel Education. You really do need to see the website, www.israeled.org because it’s one of the most incredible websites, not just about Israel, but websites, period, that I have seen. That website generates content that is something the likes of which none of us have seen before. Ken is the author of at least four books that I know of, numerous papers, scholarly articles. His expertise focuses on the origins of modern Israel, the conflict, Palestinian history, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Two of his books, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939, (UNC press, 1984) and Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (Routledge, 1999) are really the standards in their field and used in universities all over the world. He is the recipient of many awards at Emory for teaching excellence, a mentor to many, many students, and has really helped to create curricular material that is used all over the world.
[00:03:08] And his initiatives are responsible for bringing to Emory at least 10 visiting professors from Israel to Emory, and I’ve had a chance to meet many of them. His vision and his execution are really what has helped to create dozens of workshops for students and educators about modern Israel.
[00:03:30] So they’re coming to study intensively and then taking that information all over the country and really helping to educate people about Israel. He was educated at Franklin & Marshall College, the University of Michigan, has two Masters of Arts degrees in Middle Eastern history, and an advanced degree from Hebrew University in Yerushalayim. And in spring in 2006 he was a visiting professor of Political Science at Brown.
[00:03:57] So, friends, we have with us, if you don’t already know, a scholar extraordinaire, a true mensch, and one of the best resources we have in this city. Please welcome my rabban chaver, my friend and my teacher, Dr. Ken Stein.
[00:04:12]Ken Stein: [00:04:12] Thank you, Peter. Thank you all for joining us tonight. What I’d like to do tonight is talk a little bit about Joe Biden, a little bit about the foreign policy team that he’s assembled, and put it into some sort of context of what’s come before, both with Trump and maybe reaching back to Obama to make some comparisons.
[00:04:37] In order to prepare for tonight, I spent a lot of time over the last week or so reading testimony at Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee meetings about Bill Burns, who’s been appointed to head the CIA, and Anthony Blinken, who has been an appointed — now this, of course, they need to be confirmed — to be the Secretary of State.
[00:05:07]What I suggest you do if you’re at home in front of a computer and if you want to read along with some of the materials which I’ll provide is a very significant speech which Joe Biden gave in Atlanta in May of 2012 when he was vice president. He gave it before the Rabbinic Association of North America, and he spoke in great detail about Israel and Iran. And he pretty well reflected his views that he had articulated and presented over 36 years in Washington, D.C.
[00:05:54]Joe Biden comes to office as that person who’s had more Washington experience than any other person who became president — 36-some-odd years. He was a senator from Delaware when Jimmy Carter took office in ’77. The only president of the United States who comes close would be Gerald Ford with 25 years and then maybe Richard Nixon with 10 or 12. This is not a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan or a Jimmy Carter or a Donald Trump or a Barack Obama that have limited amount of foreign policy experience when they get inaugurated. On the contrary, he probably has more than all of those gentlemen combined. And it took each one of them, including Obama, a measure of time to get acquainted with what is foreign policy and how is it implemented and how does the Washington bureaucracy work.
[00:07:02] Probably Obama knew more about how the Washington bureaucracy worked because he had served in the Senate. Well, we know Reagan, Clinton and Carter didn’t. They were governors, and I’m not sure that George Bush II had any great knowledge about foreign affairs or how Washington worked except being a son living in the White House when he came to visit.
[00:07:23]So this is a unique individual with unique background. Now, unique background and unique experience means that individual knows how Washington works, knows how the bureaucracy interacts with one another. Also knows who the players are on the international scene. I mean, after all, Joe Biden for a good period of time, twelve years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chairman for four of those years. (kws)
[00:07:57] Which puts you in a unique position to do a lot of interviewing of a lot of specialists about different aspects of the world. And it was rather unique, and it will be rather unique for us. Like Clinton and Obama, Joe Biden comes to office with a major domestic and economic issue facing him in his first couple of years.
[00:08:25]And neither of those two (Obama and Clinton) used that time during the first year to expend political capital on a foreign policy issue. Carter was the one who did, and he expended his time on the Panama Canal Treaty and Salt II and Middle East peace. And when Carter was asked in the post-presidency years, did you miss an opportunity by expending that capital on foreign affairs rather than domestic? He says, “Absolutely I did. It was the biggest mistake I made.” Joe Biden comes to office with a domestic agenda that is quite extraordinary and very large. You’re all sitting here saying, “Come on, Ken, get to the foreign policy stuff, get to Israel, get to the Middle East.” Well, maybe I’m acting about like Joe Biden will act because when he takes office next Wednesday (January 20, 2021, Kws) he has to handle and cure a pandemic of monstrous proportions.
[00:09:31] He has to repair a U.S. economy. He has to find equity in practice and belief and protection for all Americans. And he has to find out why last Wednesday happened (January 6, 2021 seige at the Capitol). How did so many people feel so disenfranchised about their government, and what are their underlying concerns? Aside from left and right, or they think the election was stolen or not stolen, but there are underlying concerns about a good portion of the United States electorate and general public who feel that they have lost control over their economic destiny. And that has occurred over about the last 50 years.
[00:10:17]In foreign affairs, what we understand about Joe Biden, he has said he wants to rebuild alliances and the alliance system. That would mean NATO. That would mean getting back into international agreements like climate change, Trans-Pacific treaty.
[00:10:41]His two key advisers Anthony Blinken, who is designated to be Secretary of State, and Bill Burns, (designated to lead the CIE) they were both deeply involved and deeply engaged in the discussion that lay the groundwork for the Iran deal of 2015, along with Jake Sullivan, who is the national security adviser. Biden has said on numerous occasions that his identity with the State of Israel is as good as it’s going to be from any one person. And you can read that over and over again, not only in the speech, which is on our website, www.israeled.org, at the very top of the center black box. You can click onto www.israeled.org and see Biden’s speech from May 8, 2012. Read it through. Because it tells you exactly what he says about the State of Israel and how he feels emotionally attached to it and how he would never allow Israel not to be able to have its own defense and maintain its own security and maintain its own qualitative military edge over its Arab adversaries.
[00:12:07]The question which we don’t know, and it’s a pretty large one, is how will he confront issues that will come out of the Middle East that are not yet known to him. Every president since Lyndon Johnson has had a crisis or an issue that has come and confronted the president.
[00:12:38]Johnson and Nixon, it was the ’67 war and the ’73 war. Carter took off after the Middle East, trying to put a square box in a round hole, and he couldn’t do it. He got only a portion of the square box in the round hole in the Egyptian-Israeli peace rather than a comprehensive agreement.
[00:12:58]Ronald Reagan, the Iran-Contra affair. George Bush had the Iran-Iraq War and US invasion of Iraq. And Clinton had a rather quiet Middle East until after the Rabin assassination. And then Clinton took on the Middle East as an effort to try and reach an Arab-Israeli understanding (in summer 2000), as Obama did too.
Have to ask yourself the key question tonight, one of them is will Joe Biden expend in the first year in office or the first 18 months in office time and energy in trying to push a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis when there’s no appetite with the Palestinians and Israelis for it to happen. The appetite for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes from those who are sitting on the sideline.
[00:13:54]Comes from a large number of people who are in America and in Western Europe and around the world who are advocates — I mean deep, passionate advocates — for a two-state solution, which is fine, which is dandy, which is great. But the Palestinian community is not yet ready to negotiate such an agreement.
[00:14:17]If you don’t believe me, believe what the Palestinian leaders say, Palestinian public says about themselves. I urge you to look at a website, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research (https://www.pcpsr.org/)
[00:14:35]They put out survey research every quarter on political attitudes of their population. And what we know is that there is an 80%, a minimum of 80% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have absolutely no faith in their leadership and believe it is corrupt and is crony-ridden.
[00:15:02]And you cannot have two sides negotiate with one another if one side is politically weak. And we can’t sit here and say, without any exception, that the Israeli political system is strong. You know, we’re going to a fourth election in March, fourth election in two-plus years. Now the democracy is strong, but the stability of the center is highly questionable.
[00:15:30]So unless you have two sides that are strong and leaders who are strong, and certainly Bibi Netanyahu is not overwhelmingly endorsed and supported and embraced by the Israeli general public, you cannot reach an agreement. Sadat and Begin reached an agreement because their domestic constituencies supported it.
[00:15:48] The UAE and Israel reached an agreement in August because their leaders and domestic constituencies supported it. So before you put your hand up and say Joe Biden must spend the first six months or the first year and a half in his time in office on the Arab-Israeli conflict or mending it or resolving it, don’t be naive.
[00:16:18] Joe Biden is not going to sacrifice restoring the American economy for trying to get two sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict to sit down at the table when they don’t even want to meet. And they live 20 miles apart between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Now you may want that in your head. You may, as a follower of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, you may say it’s mandatory. It has to happen. We have to do that now. The answer is, if I were Joe Biden, I would not expend an ounce of capital on trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict unless Abbas dies tomorrow and there’s a leader who comes up and says, “I’m going to accept the State of Israel and ’67 borders. I’ll accept Israel as a Jewish state. Now, what are you going to do about it, Bibi?”
[00:17:09]But the chances about that happening is about as good as me, as a 5-foot-8 Jewish boy from Long Island, being able to dunk a basketball. That will not happen.
[00:17:20]What will Bibi do? He’s had a fraught relationship with Biden. Remember, Biden was the presiding officer when Bibi came to Washington to give a speech in March of 2015. And Biden wasn’t opposed to Bibi coming. Biden was opposed to the fact that he allowed a political party to extend the invitation rather than the President.
[00:17:50]Bibi’s best friend in Washington is no longer there, or after next Wednesday he won’t be. So what does Bibi do if he doesn’t have this political support that he once had in a Donald Trump administration?
[00:18:02]Before I get into a discussion of the Biden team, let me make a couple of key points about how the Middle East has changed between 2016 and the present. When Joe Biden left office in January of 2017, there were four Arab states that didn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel that now do.
[00:18:25]What does Biden do about that? That seems like a very positive outcome of the last four years. Maybe what Joe Biden and Blinken and Burns do, and Sullivan, [head of the National Security Council] is they take that alliance that’s growing between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel, tack on to it Jordan and Egypt and maybe Saudi Arabia, and create a loose alliance system of individual countries who have a common interest — pushing back China, pushing back an aggressive Turkey, and pushing back a toxic and aggressive Iran. Build on what’s there rather than try and create something anew.
[00:19:10]The region is racked by COVID-19. Don’t think that the United States or Latin America or Africa or Europe are the only regions of the world that have been ripped apart by COVID-19. COVID-19 has torn apart Middle Eastern economies. Iran has been an enormous loser because it did not confront the pandemic as quickly as it should, and it has lost a third to a half of its oil revenue because of the decline in the price of oil and its inability to ship oil.
[00:19:42]There’s no doubt that Palestinian Arab politics is more dysfunctional today than it was in 2016. I’m not saying it because I want to say it. I’m saying it because Palestinians say it about themselves. I don’t do politics because I want an interpretation or I want a conclusion. I interpret politics or I analyze it because I have accurate, reliable source material.
[00:20:10]I think it’s fair to say that the whole idea of land for peace is not necessary now for Israel to have a relationship with its Arab neighbors or with the Arab states in the region. It used to be Israel had to exchange land for peace. Not so anymore.
[00:20:27]Used to be a view in the Middle East and amongst policy-makers throughout the world that unless you resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, America would not be seen as a friend or as an ally. That’s just not the case anymore. There’s no linkage between resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and how America is viewed in the Middle East.
[00:20:50] America is viewed in the Middle East because it may be withdrawing its footprint, because it may be they have a bad image, both before and after last Wednesday. I don’t take the view of some folks who have written that America lost its place in the world forever because of last Wednesday. I think that’s a bunch of nonsense. I think that’s screaming fire in the middle of a theater that’s not burning.
[00:21:14]I don’t believe that. I think America will in six months be as strong as it’s ever been in terms of its institutional strength vis-a-vis its three branches of government. I think what has happened to analysts and writers is that there’s a tendency to be analytical with an “I gotcha. This is how bad it’s going to be.”
[00:21:41] I don’t believe it’s going to be that bad. I think it’s horrendous what happened last Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean America doesn’t come out with better rules, better regulations, better security. You remember after 9/11, we came out — it took us a while to realize just what we needed to do as a country.
[00:22:00]Let’s not forget that the Israelis (when polled) were 7-to-3 in favor of Donald Trump’s re-election. And right now the Israeli government is a little bit unsure on what to do about Biden, and most likely they’ll focus on their election and not embrace or not try and test Biden. If I were Bibi Netanyahu, I would not all of a sudden tomorrow announce a new settlement in the territories in order to curry favor with some people on this in the center-right that he would like to have them identify with him in the coming election. I think that would be a grave mistake and that would greatly damage the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
[00:22:38] I don’t think it would break, but it’s not something you want to do during Biden’s focus on the pandemic and on the economy and on health care. But Bibi may want to test Biden. I don’t know.
[00:22:49]A significant change has occurred since 2016, and Arab states have come to this realization that Israel has increased its status worldwide amongst a whole bunch of countries, both economically, politically, and diplomatically. And if you read Arab newspapers as regularly as I do, you can see the remorse that Israel has made all this progress. Give Bibi Netanyahu credit for being a sterling diplomat and reaching into China, reaching into Japan, reaching into Korea, reaching into the Philippines, reaching into India, reaching into Central and South America. It has really helped Israel’s name in the world. What’s not changed? The Arab Spring hasn’t changed governance structures in the Middle East, 10 years later. Sectarianism remains rampant. Iran remains vigorously engaged in spreading instability in the region.
[00:23:51]American Jews and Israeli Jews have not toned down their decibels or their anger for one another. Maybe even their intolerance. And here I’m talking about small segments. I’m not talking about the general Jewish community. I’m talking about small segments.
[00:24:08]Both communities are divided over politics, identities, rule of government, compromise with the Arabs.
[00:24:16]And that relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews still requires a lot of attention and much lower decibels. BDS is as nefarious as ever on campus. And I’ve learned that American Jews have got to do a better job of educating their own offspring about Jewish and Zionist history because we do a really not very good job in wherever we happen to have our kids. And, remember, more than half of our kids between 5 and 18 are not getting any kind of Jewish education.
[00:24:49]That’s not a commercial. That’s a reality.
(kws start here)
[00:24:52]I’d like to turn now to look at the key folks who are involved in the Biden team.
[00:25:03]Biden as we know is from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. He’s not from the liberal wing. And let’s make a distinction between the two because there are many people I spoke to before the election saying, “How can you elect a liberal Democrat?” Joe Biden is not a liberal Democrat. Joe Biden is a moderate Democrat who believes in working across the aisle to reach understandings.
[00:25:27]Biden believes in allies, alliance systemd, and cooperation.
[00:25:32]He’s emotionally attached to Israel. Biden said during the campaign that his administration will firmly reject the BDS movement, which singles out Israel and too often veers into antisemitism, and would fight other efforts to delegitimize Israel on the global stage. Biden also said, if elected president, he will sustain our unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security, including the guarantee that Israel will always maintain a qualitative military edge (over any array of adversaries). That’s essentially what he said at his Rabbinic Assembly speech on 8 May 2012.
[00:26:04]Bill Burns has had 33 years in the State Department before he’s being nominated to be head of the CIA.
[00:26:12]Burns said in Senate testimony in February 2019 — now, remember, when people are out of office and they’re not holding an official position, their tendency is to be a lot more candid and a lot more direct than if they happen to have a position at the time, let’s say assistant secretary of Near Eastern affairs. If you’re president of the Carnegie Endowment, as Burns was when he made these remarks, chances are you’re going to find out what’s inside his head and not find out something that’s whitewashed or that’s colored by careful language.
[00:26:52] This is what Burns said. This is a veteran State Department official who’s going to become head of the CIA. And Biden has said he wants the CIA to play an instrumental role in providing excellent data for our decision-makers. “We should insist that American foreign policy addressed urgently, urgently, the profound crisis of governance that’s at the heart of the Arab Spring. At a time when authoritarians feel the wind in their sails, the United States cannot afford to blindly and willfully indulge autocratic impulses.” Cannot afford to blindly and willfully indulge autocratic impulses. Does that mean he’s going to suggest as part of the foreign policy team that the American government put a clamp on the autocratic rule of Sisi in Egypt or the Saudi monarchy or any other autocrat in the Middle East? What he’s suggesting is these autocrats need to change. Will the U.S. government use its force or use its power of persuasion or use carrots and sticks to make that happen? (Burns made a similar comment about the US needing to push back on Middle Eastern autocrats in an article in December 2019.
[00:28:06]Burns in February 2019 said, “Over the coming decades, we’ll have to increase our interest in putting ourselves in a position to manage relationships and build influence in all directions. European partners will be instrumental in countering Putin’s Russia. While our allies in Asia will be a necessary part of broader strategy for dealing with the rise of China.”
[00:28:26]Remember, Burns was ambassador to Russia, and Burns said about the Middle East: “Alongside these great-power frictions, crises of regional order continue to bubble, driven by both the strengths of local competitors and weakness of failing states.” Catch this sentence: “Nowhere is this clearer than the Middle East, which remains best in class in dysfunction and fragility.”
[00:28:53] He said this in February 2019 at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Go to the website. Read the speech yourself. You don’t need to believe Ken Stein.
[00:29:01]Blinken — Antony Blinken’s stepfather was a Holocaust survivor. Blinken served as the staff director for the Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee. And he was a special adviser to Biden in foreign affairs from 2009 to 2013.
[00:29:15]He and Biden supported America’s invasion of Iraq [in 2003] — significantly, he and Biden tried to find a solution to Iraq by politically engineering it, by dividing it into three sectarian groups, which no one embraced and found to be totally naive. But it suggests to me that he wants to solve problems by applying logical solutions to a region of the world that doesn’t accept imposition of solutions to historical problems that run deep in the political culture.
[00:29:57]Blinken said in June 2020, “We will not tie military assistance to Israel to things like annexation or other decisions by the Israeli government which we might disagree.” And Blinken praised the Trump administration’s brokering of the normalization agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
[00:30:14]He made it quite clear that as far as Iran is concerned, the U.S. will not act alone.
[00:30:20]And Blinken went on to say as for the Palestinians, “The more countries normalize their relationship with Israel, the greater, I think, Israel’s confidence is in being able to make peace across the board and also hopefully to resolve the Palestinian issue to the extent that it makes Israelis feel generally more secure.”
[00:30:36] I want to express a word in conclusion of caution because I’ve been studying the Middle East since I was at graduate school at Michigan in the ’70s. One of the reasons we need to finish this by 8 o’clock is I need to watch the second half of the Michigan-Wisconsin basketball game.
[00:30:54]A word about expectations. I think many people throughout the world, many Israelis and American Jews, forget what Anwar Sadat said at the Knesset in November of ’77. He said, “We will accept you, but you have to leave all the territories.” And what most people heard is “We will accept you.” They didn’t realize that there was a second half of the condition.
[00:31:21]Sadat made peace with Israel not because he wanted to, but because he needed to. He embraced Israel because he needed to have access to American foreign aid. And he knew only the United States could be supportive of Israeli security if Israel withdrew from the Sinai. Sadat was a pragmatist.
[00:31:45]And yet there was this view in American Jewry and in Israel that somehow the lion and the lamb were laying down together, and it was all over. And it didn’t happen. Egypt and Israel had a cold peace in the ’80s and ’90s.
[00:32:04]Let’s be realistic. Israel is a Jewish state, a majority-Jewish state, in the middle of the Middle East. Most of the Arab states that are in the Middle East don’t accept the Jewish state and don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. Now we can get all euphoric and all fuzzy about the Abraham Accords. And we can say, “Isn’t this great that the UAE and Bahrain are embracing Israel?”
[00:32:31] Yeah, indeed. Israel’s been recognized by four more Arab states. That is a real major accomplishment. But let’s take a look at the Arab social media what people are saying to themselves about this embrace of the State of Israel. They’re not happy. They’re not happy at all. And if all we do is read the American media and the American press and the American people who are advocating for more negotiations and don’t understand that there’s some rigorous, deep-seated animosities for the 70-plus-year-old Jewish state that is situated between Lebanon and Syria in the North and Egypt in the South, then we are being naive, terribly naive. If this were not the case, why would there be a BDS movement?
[00:33:23]If this were the case, why do we have textbooks that are written, published and used in United Nations Work Relief Agency schools in Gaza and the West Bank that call for Israel’s destruction and don’t even have Israel on the map? It has Palestine. Now we can blind ourselves into the reality of just reading what we want and just accepting what we want. But we also have to be realistic in understanding that there is a reluctance to accept not only the Jewish state, but the success which the state has had and its unparalleled relationship with the greatest power on Earth. Namely, the United States.
[00:34:12]I laud the State of Israel for its success. I laud those who are in America who believe strongly in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. But I don’t dismiss the reality that there are 300 million Muslims in the Middle East who all of a sudden, because of the Abraham Accords, have decided that they want to fly to Tel Aviv and get on a red tour bus and go up to the Galilee and see where Jesus preached. I don’t believe that.
[00:34:42]And the reason I don’t believe it is I read too much material on a regular basis that tells me that there is a unique attitude toward the State of Israel that has not gone away even after the PLO recognized Israel in 1993.
[00:35:01]Recognition does not mean acceptance.
[00:35:04]So support your views about Israel as it affects you, but do me a favor, please: Be realistic and understand as I finish that Vice President Biden has a pretty hefty agenda, and he’s not going to be able to cater to the left or the right. He’s going to have to cater to the center in order to get things done.
[00:35:35] Joe Biden has control of the Senate if the numbers work out the way they’re supposed to for the next two years, and then it’s likely he’ll lose that majority. What does he want to do in those two years? What does he want to accomplish, and what can he accomplish that he won’t be able to accomplish after the elections that take place in 2022?
[00:36:00] And if my reading of it is correct, there are more Democrats that are sitting in the Senate who are going to have to face some tough battles in their re-election than there are Republicans.
[00:36:18]So be patient because we have Israel on the brain and because we are interested in Israel and the Middle East and we’re interested in Israel’s future. Ask yourself the question: Can Israel live for two years or four years without a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? And if the answer is yes because Israel is here for the long haul.
[00:36:40]Peter, any questions?
[00:36:42] Rabbi Peter Berg: [00:36:42] Yes. First of all, thank you for that absolutely extraordinary presentation. Everybody I’m sure wants to go back to university now. That was really, really excellent. A lot of questions came in about Iran and the consequences of re-entry into the Iran deal or a different Iran deal. What are your thoughts there?
[00:37:04] Ken Stein: [00:37:04] Well, how does the United States want to contain Iranian aggression? How do we want to do that? Do we want do it with a carrot and a stick? Do we want to do it with force? I think the last Iran deal was somehow built a little bit too firmly on naivete that the Iranians would behave if we asked them to do so.
[00:37:30]I think there’s a realization now that sanctions really do work, and heavy sanctions work even better. And there has to be a timetable that has to be well negotiated. Not because we want to leave office with this notion that we have an agreement with Iran and somehow the Iranians have promised with their fingers crossed that they’re not going to act in a toxic way in the Middle East or elsewhere.
[00:37:57]And I’m not afraid of negotiating an Iran deal. I want to know what the deal is, but this particular deal needs to be ratified by the Senate. Remember, Obama did this deal without ratification by the Senate, and that’s not good for American democracy. This Congress, this Senate, must ratify whatever treaty is negotiated, and it must be a treaty.
[00:38:22] It can’t just be an understanding. It has to have a greater weight, so it can’t all of a sudden be ripped apart by the next person who occupies the Oval Office. Now I know there’s some people who are delighted that Trump ripped it apart. I got it. I understand that. How you negotiated what the contents are in it is what matters. Now, thankfully, we have Sullivan and Blinken, who played important roles in that negotiation. And let’s not forget that just down the hall in the White House with an office of his own in charge of climate change is a guy by the name of Secretary of State Kerry, who helped negotiate it. Now is he going to be involved at all in the discussion, even quietly, about how an agreement with Iran should unfold?
[00:39:20] I don’t know. And by the way, while we’re talking about who’s down the hall, so’s Susan Rice, who’s going to be responsible for domestic affairs or domestic advice or domestic affairs adviser, or I don’t know what the exact title is [Domestic Policy Council Head] But she certainly has a lot of security and foreign policy experience.
[00:39:41] I mean, that White House is full of people who know Iran. The question is, are they going to fall in love with a deal, or are they going to fall in love with a deal that serves U.S. interests and the interests of our allies in the region? And this time around the United States has got to take into account the interest of Bahrain, the interest of the UAE, and maybe the interest of any other Arab state in the Gulf that wants to be sure that the U.S. will not be condemned for entering into the agreement, as many of these Arab Sunni states did in 2015. There are lessons to be learned from yesterday’s lack of perfection, for want of a better term.
[00:40:35]Rabbi Peter Berg: [00:40:35] Couple of questions about China. One actually comes from a former student of yours from 2011, wondering about any concern for Israel and approaching China and China’s advancing itself into Israel.
[00:40:48] Ken Stein: [00:40:48] The Israelis have got to protect their security. They have to know that the Chinese are not just doing this because they have decided to be nice allies. They have an expansionistic kind of foreign policy, and any kind of agreement that you reach with China, you have to understand what the implications are not only today, but for tomorrow. So I would move forward with a measure of caution. And I’m sure the Israelis are. But at the same time, what the Israelis are doing is the Israelis are cultivating very strong relationships between Jerusalem and Tokyo and Jerusalem and Seoul. The Israeli-Korean relationship and the Israeli-Japanese relationship have really blossomed in the last five to 10 years. And any effort to try and curry favor with China has to be balanced with what Israel is trying to do with these other Asian economic powerhouses. If I sound like I’m not giving you a flat-out answer, it’s because I’m schooled in the notion that you want to enhance your own country’s national interests without giving away the prerogatives to make the decisions necessary for you to protect yourself.
[00:42:07] Rabbi Peter Berg: [00:42:07] Last question because we are at the hour. A question came in about your predictions about the vice president’s position on Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
[00:42:19] Ken Stein: [00:42:20] Unless the vice president comes to office with a strong knowledge of a particular issue, that individual will probably not engage in that issue, other than maybe sitting at the table. Maybe views will be heard.
The great difference was Mondale working with Carter because Mondale had enormous background and history with the Jewish community, and Carter relied on him, in part because Carter didn’t have that knowledge. I think Kamala Harris is gonna have to pay very close attention to where the president incorporates her into the decision-making, and I would suspect because of her domestic capacity and capabilities, her experience serving in the judiciary — she was attorney general of California (2011-2017) — I think her time will be spent, and I think she will want to spend her time, on those issues that matter to gaining equity in society and reducing the degrees of anger that people have toward people of color and toward immigrants. And I think Biden will probably treat her in decision-making like Obama did Biden, which was “Be at the table, give me your best thoughts, but don’t believe that you’re going to have the last word.”
[00:43:48]There are a lot of people who come to the White House with very deep, long experience as far as the Middle East is concerned, far greater than Kamala Harris. It doesn’t mean she won’t be included.
[00:44:02]Peter, before I go, I would like to take a short opportunity as I found it today on a White House website. The National Security Council is that organization that’s headed by Jake Sullivan that interacts with the CIA and the State Department and the Defense Department and national intelligence officers to come up with a composite of what the president of the United States needs to know about issues abroad.
[00:44:31]Like other White Houses, like other staffing, this White House has individuals who are going to be in the National Security Council who are directors for the Western Hemisphere, directors for the Middle East and North Africa, directors for Russia, Central Asia, directors for South Asia. But here is a list of titles that I have never seen before, and these are senior directors who are on the National Security Council. And listen to these titles so you’ll get some idea of what the priorities are of the Biden administration: senior director for partnerships and global engagement, senior director for global health security and biodefense, senior director for technology and national security, senior director for resilience and response, senior director for international economics and competitiveness, coordinator for democracy and human rights, senior director for climate and energy.
[00:45:32]Now those were not, to my knowledge, senior directors that were at the White House in the Obama administration. I may be wrong. I may be totally wrong. Maybe some of them did exist, but when you have designated individuals to be responsible at the National Security Council for those particular issues, it indicates to you exactly what the administration, what Jake Sullivan, what Blinken are thinking in terms of where do we need to have superior analysis as we give advice to the president of the United States. And that I think is significantly different than previous administrations.
[00:46:15] Peter, let me again offer people to use the website, www.israeled.org Thank you and everyone at The Temple for inviting me to participate tonight.
[00:46:27] Rabbi Peter Berg: [00:46:27] The number of hits this website gets around the world is really something, not just here in Atlanta and not just in America, but around the world, and notice the Espanol button in Spanish. The number of hits that it gets is really something unique. I only know that from my stint on the board of the CIE. I want to thank you for your candor, for your intellectual honesty, for reading so many articles to help us get ready for what is to come and to say also what a pleasure it is. We’re so used to hearing things that are so one-sided.
[00:47:01] And to hear your critique and praise all around the block, I think that that’s important. I will just end by saying that administrations come and go. Government, you know, officials come and go. But we in our community remain strong supporters of Israel and of the United States and of the relationship between Israel and the United States.
[00:47:24] And I’m proud to be a part of a congregation that takes that seriously and a community that takes that seriously. And I want to challenge all of us to do our part as this new administration, as any new administration takes shape, to continue to make sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship is as strong as ever.
Sources consulted for this presentation
Peter Rodman, Presidential Command Power Leadership and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, Alfred Knopf, 2009.
Vice-President Joe Biden’s Remarks to the Rabbinical Assembly in Georgia, May 8, 2012, https://israeled.org/resources/documents/vice-president-joe-biden-remarks-to-the-rabbinical-assembly-in-atlanta-georgia/
William J. Burns, President Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, February 27, 2019, video and transcript,
William J. Burns, “An End to Magical Thinking in the Middle East,” The Atlantic, December 8, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/12/08/end-to-magical-thinking-in-middle-east-pub-80520
Adam Hoffman, “Gulf Citizens against normalization”: Reactions to Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain,” BeeHive Middle East Social Media, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Vol.8, No. 6 September 2020, https://dayan.org/content/gulf-citizens-against-normalization-reactions-israels-normalization-agreements-uae-and
Center for Israel Education, Israel-Indo Asian Relations, https://israeled.org/themes/israel-indo-asian-relations/
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris Announce Additional Members of the National Security Council, January 8, 2021,