How AIPAC Beat J Street

It has the formula for healing the dangerous U.S.-Israeli trust deficit that emerged under Obama.

For decades, the number one rule of ally-to-ally diplomacy governing America's relations with our closest friends was simple and straightforward: We settled our differences in private.

But when President Barack Obama's administration took office three years ago, that axiom appeared to fall out of practice -- at least when it came to the U.S. relationship with Israel.

The White House struck a confrontational stance with Israel from the outset, choosing to elevate the issue of Jewish housing construction across the 1949 armistice lines, even in Israel's capital city of Jerusalem, as the fundamental issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The administration also refused to acknowledge prior understandings between the United States and Israel -- breaking with American promises that had come in conjunction with irreversible Israeli concessions.

Some, like Michael Lerner of the fringe-left Tikkun magazine and self-proclaimed "pro-Israel and pro-peace" group J Street, an old-wine new-bottle version of groups long calling for pressure on Israel, cheered the White House's approach. Many were frequent visitors to the West Wing. Their calls for an increasingly confrontational style with the Jewish state were suddenly en vogue.

In more recent months, however, things have changed. As ideology gave way to reality, longtime Middle East hands and mainstream pro-Israel organizations, which have long argued the Obama administration's publicly confrontational approach was faulty, appear to have won the White House over to their side. 

This transformation was on full display during the president's remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference, which has gathered 14,000 people in Washington to voice their support for a close U.S.-Israel relationship. "[T]here should not be a shred of doubt by now," Obama said. "When the chips are down, I have Israel's back."

The tension of the past has given way to a less confrontational style from the Obama administration -- and none too soon. But was it soon enough? And will it be enough to overcome the deficit of trust between Obama and Netanyahu?

Trust matters. History teaches us that progress toward peace is most likely when there is no daylight between the United States and Israel, and that public spats undermine trust and encourage recalcitrance among the Palestinians -- who in turn make no concessions, waiting for the Americans to deliver Israel.

Above all, the looming threat of Iran's nuclear program calls for an extraordinary relationship of trust to ensure the closest possible cooperation between the United States and Israel. It's impossible to exaggerate the weight of responsibility resting on the Israeli prime minister, charged with safeguarding the people of Israel after millennia of Jewish life being subject to the whims of others.

Even when the personal relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the American president are as close as imaginable, it is a very high bar for an Israeli leader to put the future security of the Jewish people in the hands of another, especially when faced with the truly intolerable threat coming from a nuclear Iran -- which has pledged to annihilate the Jewish state.

And even with the greatest level of trust imaginable, Israel has never let any country fight its battles. Israel and can and clearly will defend the Jewish people herself. That is the Jewish state's raison d'être.

How did we get here?

Many in the pro-Israel community shook their heads and some crowed "I told you so" as the administration made early misstep after misstep. Analysts pointed not only to the troubling approach coming from a candidate, now president, they didn't fully trust. They also shook their heads at the predictable outcome of the White House approach to the peace process, where emboldened Palestinians refused to negotiate with Israel and ultimately set back the peace process to a pre-1991 status -- when the Palestinians literally refused to be in the same room as Israel.

In a private White House meeting with leaders of the Jewish community in September 2009, Obama was asked why he had moved so decisively away from the private ways in which friends like the United States and Israel usually settle their differences. Trust, participants explained to the president, was key to Israel's ability to undertake difficult choices on peace and was vital for U.S.-Israel cooperation on Iran.

"I disagree," the president responded. "Public pressure compels people to act."

A crescendo to this public tension with Israel came in the spring of 2010, when an unfortunate but meaningless announcement related to future housing construction in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem came in the midst of a vice presidential visit. It enraged the president. The White House and State Department issued a stark ultimatum that if Israel did not do what it was told, they might have to conclude that our two nations no longer share the same interests.

Despite the administration's support for increased security aid to Israel, eventual pursuit of sanctions against Iran, and continuation of U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations, these incidents and others caused deep distress among the mainstream pro-Israel community and undermined the trust between the two governments. If Obama was prepared to so casually toss aside American commitments to Israel on such sensitive and meaningful issues, what possible weight could American commitments to stop Iran's nuclear pursuit provide?

The Obama administration's approach began to shift in the fall of 2011, when the threats facing Israel began to come into stark relief. The Palestinians were refusing to negotiate with Israel, even indirectly, and consistently rebuffed Obama's private entreaties to return to the table. The International Atomic Energy Agency declared Iran's nuclear scientists were engaged in work that cannot be related to "anything other than a nuclear explosive." And Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak worried that Tehran was approaching a "zone of immunity" in pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

After nearly 36 months of public disagreements with Israel, Obama stepped to the podium at the U.N. General Assembly and turned a symbolic page, delivering an address candid in its appraisal of Palestinian failure and generous in its appreciation for Israel's security needs -- and its consistent efforts in pursuit of peace.

"Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map," the president said. "The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine."

It appeared that reality, experience, and the uncooperative nature of Israel's adversaries and enemies had trumped the White House and its allies' "confrontation" theory. To many in the mainstream pro-Israel community, this was a welcome change in the administration's tone and, in some cases, its policy.

"Confrontation" cheerleaders like J Street, whose executive director recently took to the Washington Post to legitimize an anti-Semitic canard, have become irrelevant in the public debate and in Congress. They lied about their ties to funder George Soros and other anti-Israel figures. They took embarrassing positions -- like support for the anti-Israel Goldstone Report, a libel that even its author later denounced. They suggested that the United States should side with the rest of the world in ganging up on Israel in the United Nations.

These ideas are deeply in contrast with the broad spectrum of the mainstream pro-Israel community and have rightly been rejected by the Obama administration. And now, over these groups' objections, the White House has moved away from the failed and counterproductive policy of public feuding with Israel.

As the Iranian nuclear challenge comes to a head, and the Arab Spring poses serious challenges to American interests in the region and to the progressive values that the United States and Israel embody, America's need for a relationship rooted in trust with Israel seems to have trumped the tension of the past few years, at least for now.

Trust matters. Friends can disagree without losing that trust. But it cannot survive diplomatic campaigns waged in public or in the press. That's a lesson that the White House, at long last, seems to have learned.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images


Kill the Messenger

What Russia taught Syria: When you destroy a city, make sure no one -- not even the story -- gets out alive.

It was a star-filled night in Chechnya's besieged capital of Grozny. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked with the Chechen rebel commander away from the warmth of our safe house. When we entered a bombed-out neighborhood 15 minutes away, I put the battery in my Iridium satellite phone and waited for the glowing screen to signal that I had locked on to the satellites.

I made my call. It was short. Then the commander made a call; he quickly hung up and handed me back the phone. "Enough," he said, motioning for me to remove the battery.

As we walked briskly back to the safe house, it was exactly 10 minutes before the cascade of double wa-whumps announced the Grad rocket batteries pounding the vacant neighborhood we had just left.

It was December 1999, and the Russian assault on Grozny was unfolding in all its gruesome detail. After the dissolution of so much of the former Soviet empire, Chechnya was one country that the newly minted prime minister, Vladimir Putin, refused to let go of. His boss, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian army had been defeated and then humiliated in the media by Chechen forces in the first war. Five years later, Russia was back. And Putin's new strategy was unbending: silence, encircle, pulverize, and "cleanse." It was a combination of brutal tactics -- a Stalinist purge of fighting-age males plus Orwellian propaganda that fed Russians a narrative wherein Chechen freedom fighters were transformed into Islamist mercenaries and terrorists. More than 200,000 civilians were to die in this war, the echoes of which continue to this day.

This time, journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone. As such, you can't find a lot of stories about the second Chechen war. One of the few and best accounts was written by Marie Colvin, who described her terrifying escape from Grozny for the Sunday Times. Last month, Colvin thought she could roll the dice and enter the besieged Syrian city of Homs to defy yet another brutal war of oppression. This time she lost.

It's impossible to know whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- a longtime ally of Russia -- studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs. However, his Russian military advisors surely know the tactics well. The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime's enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists.

Assad's ability to lethally target journalists using satellite-phone uplinks could well have cost Colvin her life. Multiple reports have suggested that Syrian forces used phone signals to pinpoint her location and then launched a rocket barrage that resulted in her death on Feb. 22, along with that of French photographer Remi Ochlik and multiple Syrian civilians.

The use of satellite and cellular transmissions to determine a subject's location was relatively new a decade ago, when I was in Grozny. Tracking phone transmissions to hunt down targets began in earnest with a covert unit of U.S. intelligence officers from the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, Navy, Air Force, and special operations called "The Activity." This snooping unit was also called the Army of Northern Virginia, Grey Fox, and even Task Force Orange. We see much of this technology used to inform modern drone and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command strikes. My decade covering U.S. spec ops, intelligence gathering, and their contractors highlighted the impressive ability of various countries to monitor, locate, network, and act on what is called SIGINT, or signals intelligence.

The Russians have their own version of this capability, which fell under the command of the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, now part of the Federal Protective Service. In the United States, it would be equivalent to the NSA and FBI combined, and the agency provides sophisticated eavesdropping support to Russia's military, intelligence, and counterterrorism units -- and to Russia's allies, including Syria.

Russia has spent a long time perfecting these techniques. On April 21, 1996, Chechnya's breakaway president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was speaking on a satellite phone with Russian envoy Konstantin Borovoi about setting peace talks with Yeltsin. During the phone call, he was killed by a signal-guided missile fired from a Russian jet fighter. The warplane had received Dudayev's coordinates from a Russian ELINT (electronic intelligence) plane that had picked up and locked on to the signal emitted by the satellite phone. It was Russian deception and brutality at its finest.

It should have been clear even back then that there was a benefit and a distinct penalty to modern communications on the battlefield.

Flash forward to Syria today. The opposition Free Syrian Army is officially run by a former air force colonel who commands a barely organized group of army defectors supported by energetic youth. They rely almost entirely on cell-phone service, satellite phones, the Internet, and social media to organize and communicate. Early in February, according to a Fox News report, Qatar provided 3,000 satellite phones, which the Syrian rebels have used to upload numerous impactful videos and stories.

These past few weeks, under a barrage of mortar, tank, and artillery shells, their plaintive calls for help from inside the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs sparked international outrage. But without Western journalists filing for newspapers and television outlets, these videos -- mostly shaky, low-resolution footage of corpses and artillery strikes -- wouldn't have had the impact they deserve.

In a welcome resurgence of non-embedded journalism, brave reporters like Colvin and many others risked their lives to enter Homs and report from the ground. What they showed us was moving, horrific, and embarrassing. Once again, Western governments were caught doing nothing -- while women, children, and innocents were murdered by their own government. It's a playbook the Syrians are good at: The shelling of Homs began on Feb. 3, 2012 -- exactly 30 years after the Hama massacre, in which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, killed up to 15,000 civilians over three weeks in a similar program of wanton destruction.

What we haven't seen as clearly is the extent to which the Syrian regime (thanks to its Russian advisors) now has the tools of electronic warfare to crush this popular uprising -- and anything that happens to get in the way. Syria is one of Russia's biggest clients for weapons, training, and intelligence. In return for such largesse, it has offered the Russian Navy use of Tartus, a new deep-water military port in the Mediterranean. Moscow sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of weapons in 2011, despite growing sanctions against the oppressive Assad regime. With these high-tech weapons comes the less visible Russian-supplied training on technologies, tactics, and strategies.

The sounds of rockets pulverizing civilians should have brought back memories and warnings to Colvin. She would have recognized all the signs from her previous reporting in Chechnya, where she and her escorts were hunted relentlessly by Russian domestic security agents who sought to arrest, silence, or kill any journalist attempting to report on the slaughter of civilians.

My time in Grozny included being surrounded three times by the Russian army, numerous direct bombardments, and frequent close calls. I paid attention to the safety warnings of the Chechen rebel commanders who kept me alive. These rebels were once part of the Soviet military and intelligence apparatus and were fully schooled in Russia's dirty tricks. They taught me much. Chief among them was not communicating electronically while in country, not trusting "media guides," and never telling people where I was going. If captured by Russian troops, they urged me -- for my own safety -- to say that I had been kidnapped by Chechen forces.

Just as I exited Chechnya, I met Colvin, who was heading in. She wanted to know as much as she could. I warned her of the duplicity and violent intent of the Russian military and their Chechen proxies. Despite my warnings, she bravely entered Chechnya and wrote riveting, award-winning stories that now sound almost identical to her coverage from Syria.

I was distressed to read of Colvin's death in Syria, and even more distressed to think she might still be alive now if she had remembered some basic warnings. Her first error was that she stayed inside the rebel "media center" -- in reality, a four-story family home converted to this use as it was one of the few places that had a generator.

The second was communication. The Syrian army had shut down the cell-phone system and much of the power in Baba Amr -- and when journalists sent up signals it made them a clear target. After CNN's Arwa Damon broadcast live from the "media center" for a week, the house was bombarded until the top floor collapsed. Colvin may have been trapped, but she chose to make multiple phone reports and even went live on CNN and other media channels, clearly mentioning that she was staying in the bombed building.

The third mistake was one of tone. She made her sympathies in the besieged city clearly known as she emotionally described the horrors and documented the crimes of the Syrian government.

Unsurprisingly, the next day at 9 a.m., a barrage of rockets was launched at the "media center." She was killed -- along her cameraman, Remi Ochlik, and at least 80 Syrian civilians across the city -- targeted with precision rocket barrages, bombs, and the full violence of the Syrian army.

In Grozny, Russian forces decided that they would eliminate everything, everybody, and every voice that stood up to the state -- including journalists who tried to enter. Syria has clearly made the same determination in Homs. This military action is intended to be a massacre, a Stalinist-style lesson to those who dare defy the rulers of Syria.

The United Nations estimates that more than 7,500 Syrians have so far been killed in the yearlong spasm of violence there. Perhaps this ghastly toll would be even higher now if brave reporters like Colvin had not entered. With the recent news that the rebels have retreated from the bombardment of Baba Amr to safer territory, Assad's forces, as well as their Russian advisors, are claiming victory. According to official news reports from the Syrian Information Ministry, "the foreign-backed mercenaries and armed terrorist groups" have fled, the corpses of three Western journalists have been "discovered," and Homs is now "peaceful."

Despite what Damascus claims, this fight is not yet over. And we need more brave and bright journalists who will shine a light in places like Syria, where a regime works diligently to plunge its people into darkness. But let's not forget whose callous playbook they're using.