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Will Trump leave Biden a war in the Middle East?

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(JTA) The simmering fear among Middle East watchers that President Donald Trump might attack Iran in the waning days of his presidency was inflamed on Friday when assassins shot to death the man believed to be responsible for Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

No one has claimed responsibility for killing Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iran’s foreign minister has blamed Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in 2018 about Fakhrizadeh, “Remember that name.” Israeli officials have declined to comment.

That leaves international observers assuming that Israel was behind the attack and wondering whether tension between Iran and the United States and Israel could blow up in the next few weeks.

“Any member of Congress should be concerned about a potential US or Israeli strike on Iran at this point,” said a senior Democratic congressional staffer who asked for anonymity to speak frankly.

Here’s what you need to know about the tension, what’s driving the three countries’ leaders, and the scenarios that might unfold over the coming weeks.

What exactly is going on, anyway?

On Friday, according to Iranian media reports, the vehicle in which Fakhrizadeh and his wife were travelling came under automatic fire, and a nearby truck exploded. Some reports said the attack was carried out by remote control.

The killing comes against mounting indications that Trump and Netanyahu are thinking about striking Iran’s nuclear reactor at Natanz.

Just two weeks ago, Trump reportedly contemplated a strike on Iran’s main nuclear site, and Axios is reporting that Israel is taking steps to be ready for such a strike. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading the charge to intensify the application of sanctions on Iran that are designed to be difficult to undo for President-elect Joe Biden.

Last week, Netanyahu met in Saudi Arabia with Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen accompanied Netanyahu, leading some pundits to speculate that the Israelis were briefing the Saudis and the Americans ahead of the attack on Fakhrizadeh.

Would Trump really want to attack Iran in the final weeks of his presidency?

Yes and no. On the one hand, Trump and his administration are reportedly trying to set so many diplomatic fires that Biden will have a hard time extinguishing all of them. And on Iran, the differences between the two men couldn’t be clearer.

Both are concerned about Iran’s accumulation of nuclear material. But Trump doesn’t want Biden to return to the Iran nuclear deal for which Biden advocated as vice president under Barack Obama, who inked the 2015 agreement. The outgoing president is taking steps to obstruct his successor, most notably with an intensified sanctions regime. The most potent way of scotching a return to the Iran deal would be to launch conflict with Iran.

The most consequential step Trump can take is to order a strike on Iran – the kind he reportedly contemplated two weeks ago on Natanz. His aides talked him out of it.

Trump wouldn’t be serving his own goals by contemplating a strike, said Martin Indyk, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow who has served in senior diplomatic positions in Democratic administrations and has been a fierce critic of Trump.

“If you watch him carefully, he’s more concerned about establishing his legacy, which is to bring the troops home,” he said. “There is a contradiction between bringing the troops home and a war in the Middle East.”

But Trump has been known to act impetuously in matters of international significance.

Wait, can he really do that?

If Trump changes his mind and orders a strike, there’s likely little recourse for Congress to stop him. Presidents since 2001 have used the broadly written Authorization of the Use of Military Force passed by Congress following the 9/11 attacks to launch myriad attacks in the Middle East. Democrats in recent years have sought to limit that authorisation, but those efforts are stuck in the Republican-led Senate.

Trump would relay a strike order to his secretary of defence, who then would send it to the appropriate commanding officer. In September, Trump fired Mark Esper, a defence secretary who on occasions had resisted the commander-in-chief’s orders, and replaced him with Christopher Miller, of whom little is known, as part of a broad push to install loyalists at the end of his term.

Neither Miller nor the commanding officer would have the standing to refuse to carry out a legal order. On the other hand, they are required to refuse an illegal order.

Would an order to strike Iran be illegal? International law requires a credible threat as a predicate for a strike, and has measures against hitting civilian targets. Iran says it has no nuclear weapons programme and that its nuclear sites are for civilian use.

Should someone in the US chain of command refuse to carry out the strike, its proponents would no doubt counter that Western intelligence agencies have assessed that Iran has sought nuclear weapons in the past, and that a nuclear-armed Iran poses a credible threat. Still, the ensuing back-and-forth could delay a strike until Biden assumed the presidency.

What does Biden think about this?

The president-elect’s outlook on Iran is centred on a pledge to return to the nuclear deal struck under the Obama administration, with improvements. As vice president, Biden was a leading salesman for the deal, which traded sanctions relief for rollbacks of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Biden, who stands to inherit the blowback on top of the already vexing question of how to handle US relations with Iran, hasn’t commented on the recent events. He “firmly believes in the principle that there must be only one president at a time guiding our country’s foreign policy and national security, and is focused on preparing to govern, which is why we’ll decline to comment at this time”, Ned Price, a spokesman for the transition, said in an email response to a query about Biden’s Iran policy.

But Biden insiders have been telling congressional staffers and foreign policy mavens to read closely two op-eds appearing in the weeks before the election to understand Biden’s Iran intentions.

One, “There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran,” appeared in September on CNN’s website with Biden’s byline. It argues that Iran deserves tough consequences, but that these backfire if the US fails to co-ordinate with European and Asian allies, as Trump has done. Biden also wants Iran to end its adventurism in the region, but also pledges to immediately pull back some sanctions, particularly those affecting coronavirus relief.

The other op-ed, “On Iran, the next administration must break with the past,” was published in Foreign Affairs in August and co-authored by three people, including two Obama administration Iran policy alumni. One of its central arguments is that the next president should consult Israel and Sunni Arab allies while negotiating the deal – which Obama failed to do – and should run parallel talks on non-nuclear issues, including Iran’s missile programme and its regional adventurism.

Does Netanyahu really want a war with Israel’s most potent neighbour?

Again, yes and no. On the one hand, the prime minister is contending with low popularity – so low that he probably wouldn’t retain power if elections were held today – and a successful attack against Israel’s most formidable foe could burnish his status among Israelis. Netanyahu also knows that any kind of military strike against Iran will be less likely under Biden, so he may be pressing for intervention now.

But Israel’s security establishment has been wary for years of an open-ended, full-blown conflict with Iran. It stayed Netanyahu’s hand in 2010 and 2011 when he contemplated a strike, and one of the naysayers, then-military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, is now the foreign minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Trump has other options if he wants to strike Iran, including assassinations and cyberattacks of the kind that the Netanyahu and Obama governments worked together on in the early years of the Obama administration, and which, for a time, crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities.

Netanyahu has the same options as Trump – a strike and deniable lower-intensity attacks such as assassinations and cyber warfare – and the same ostensible interest in pushing Iran into a defensive posture that would frustrate a return to the nuclear deal.

The Israeli has a further deterrent that Trump doesn’t: Netanyahu not only needs to work with an incoming Biden administration, the prime minister would need Biden’s unrestrained backing if whatever action he launches escalates into a war.

Biden might be less than willing to fully support Israel if Netanyahu is seen as triggering the war. Moreover, Trump’s determined efforts to cripple an incoming Biden administration would likely hobble whatever effective action the US would take on Israel’s behalf.

Bad blood with the incoming president would also damage Netanyahu’s political standing at a precarious time for his leadership, said Indyk.

“He’s thinking of another election,” Indyk said of Netanyahu while noting that in spite of his flirtations with a strike on Iran a decade ago, Netanyahu has been among Israel’s least trigger-happy prime ministers.

“He has always been cautious about the use of force,” Indyk said. “He knows where it starts, and he also knows he doesn’t know where it ends.”

What happens next?

The next several days will be pivotal in revealing how far Trump and Netanyahu plan to go at this time and whether Iran will carry out retribution for Fakhrizadeh’s murder, which could force their hand. Iran is feeling the economic crunch of sanctions, and the government of President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that it is ready to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

On the other hand, the assassination has exposed Iran’s internal security apparatus as weak and vulnerable to penetration. Iranian hardliners may press the country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to save face, however much it risks an escalation.

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Jewish groups turn on Trump

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(JTA) The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) hardly ever pronounces on any issue that doesn’t relate to Israel. It’s also loath to criticise a sitting president.

But the preeminent pro-Israel lobby did both last Wednesday, after rioters supporting President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would formalise Joe Biden’s win.

“We share the anger of our fellow Americans over the attack at the Capitol, and condemn the assault on our democratic values and process,” AIPAC said in a statement posted to Twitter. “This violence, and President Trump’s incitement of it, is outrageous and must end.”

The statement, crafted during an emergency meeting of the lobby’s executive committee, was among a host of extraordinary comments on American democracy by Jewish groups, many of which typically steer clear of partisan politics.

AIPAC wasn’t the only mainstream Jewish organisation to speak out on an extraordinary day that resulted in what once was unthinkable: police spiriting into safe havens hundreds of legislators while marauders roamed and looted the Capitol.

Trump invited protesters to Washington DC, and earlier on the day, urged them to march on the Capitol. As the situation grew tense, he simultaneously urged his supporters to disband and told them that he “loved them”.

The Anti-Defamation League also named Trump. “The violence at the US Capitol is the result of disinformation from our highest office,” it said in a tweet. “Extremists are among the rioters in DC supporting President Trump’s reckless rhetoric on America’s democratic institutions.” ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt called on social media to suspend Trump’s accounts and a number of platforms eventually heeded those calls.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy bodies, also named Trump. “This was a direct assault on our democratic process, and nothing less than an attempt to disrupt the peaceful transition of power in a presidential election and an act of sedition,” it said.

Two legacy groups were cautious and condemned the violence while not directly blaming Trump. The American Jewish Committee called on Trump “to call for an immediate end to the riots and respect the certification process currently underway”, without noting that Trump started the fire, as many others had, including some leading Republicans.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella foreign policy group for the Jewish community, didn’t name Trump at all, although its statement was forceful. “We are disgusted by the violence at the US Capitol, and urge the rioters to disperse immediately,” it said. “Law and order must be restored, and the peaceful transition of administrations must continue.”

B’nai B’rith International “strongly urged” Trump “to publicly condemn the rioters”.

Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, called the attack on the Capitol a “brutal onslaught on our nation’s integrity and historical traditions”.

The Orthodox Union weighed in at first by endorsing the presidents’ conference statement, but on 7 January, issued a statement pointedly aimed at Trump with a tone of relief at the prospect of Trump’s term ending.

“There is no place for the kind of outrageous incitement that fed that assault on the pillars of our democracy. It must stop,” the statement said. “We call upon President Trump to do all that is in his power – and it is indeed in his power – to restore that peace.”

Agudath Israel of America posted on Twitter a statement by its long-time Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen.

“The US Capitol is more than a majestic building,” Cohen said. “It’s the true house of the people and the home of democracy. It’s the hope of the nation. You feel it when entering its doors and walking its halls. Today, it was a place of shameful violence and tyranny. Stop or we are lost.”

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly called on Trump “to defend and uphold the constitution of the United States”, but did not blame him for what it called an “attack on democracy and its institutions”.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center was less shy, saying, “The fact that today’s events were encouraged by the president of the United States who has refused to accept his electoral loss is equally terrifying and heartbreaking.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, said, “The president repeatedly incited far-right thugs to subvert our democracy, and now they’re trying to do just that.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, a group known for its support for Trump’s Israel policies, said on Twitter that the marauding in the Capitol was “thoroughly unacceptable and intolerable” but went on to cite an unsubstantiated report that an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent reported a claim that a busload of the marauders belonged to Antifa, a catchall term for leftist protesters.

The Republican Jewish Coalition last Thursday morning congratulated Biden on winning the election, and in its statement included a plea for a peaceful transition to power. The statement made no mention of Trump.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America was scathing. “President Trump has abused his power, endangered American lives, and undermined our democratic institutions,” it said.

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‘Camp Auschwitz’ just one of hate symbols on display at Capitol

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(JTA) The sweatshirt, spotted amid the mob that stormed the United States Capitol, seemed designed to provoke fear.

“Camp Auschwitz”, it read, along with the message, “Work brings freedom” – a rough translation of the message that greeted Jewish prisoners at the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

A photo of the man wearing the sweatshirt was just one of the images of hateful symbols that have circulated from the mob, whose violence led to four deaths and wreaked havoc on Congress. Confederate flags and nooses were among the overt hate signs that the insurrection brought into the Capitol.

Other slogans – on flags, clothing, or signs – were code for a gamut of conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies. Here’s what you need to know about them.

QAnon slogans

Several members of the mob wore or carried signs invoking the pro-Donald Trump QAnon conspiracy theory, which is laced with antisemitism. QAnon, which began in 2017 and has gained millions of adherents, falsely alleges that an elite cabal of paedophiles, run by Democrats, is plotting to harvest the blood of children and take down Trump. Trump has praised the movement and espoused its baseless ideas.

Here are some of the QAnon symbols present in the Capitol last Wednesday.

“Q”

“Q” represents the purported high-ranking government official who shares inside information with QAnon followers through cryptic posts on fringe websites.

Trust the plan

As Q’s supposed predictions have proven false over the years, including the election of Joe Biden, which Q predicted wouldn’t happen, many QAnon followers became disillusioned. Others told them to “trust the plan”, and place their faith in QAnon’s theories.

Save the children

Messaging related to saving children is a core tenet of QAnon. In a photo, a woman is seen carrying a sign saying, “The children cry out for justice”, referencing children who QAnon conspiracists falsely believe have been abducted by Democrats and progressives, including Jewish billionaire financier George Soros.

Neo-Nazis

Prominent Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis were part of the Capitol mob. A far-right activist known as Baked Alaska livestreamed from inside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Another extremist, Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist who leads the far-right Groyper Army, was said to be in the room with him. Fuentes denies this, but was outside the Capitol last Wednesday.

The Neo-Nazi group NSC-131 also joined the insurrection, according to reporter Hilary Sargent. NSC stands for Nationalist Social Club and has small regional chapters in the US and abroad. The 131 division is from New England.

Confederate flags and nooses

Other flags on display were also associated with long histories of white supremacy. At least one protester carried a Confederate battle flag into the Capitol building. Meanwhile, nooses – a prominent symbol of racist violence – were placed outside.

In one instance, after members of the mob started destroying camera equipment from theAssociated Press, they made a noose out of the cords, according to BuzzFeed News reporter Paul McLeod.

Anti-government militia symbols

Flags bearing the phrase “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty” (a version of a quote dubiously attributed to Thomas Jefferson) and the Roman numeral III were also seen.

“III” is the logo of the Three Percenters, also known as the III% militia, an anti-government militia founded in response to the election of President Barack Obama. The ADL defines the Three Percenters as “extremists who are part of the militia movement”.

Another symbol favoured by militias is a coiled snake above the phrase, “Don’t Tread on Me”, known as the Gadsden flag, which symbolises support for gun rights and individual liberties. The symbol, emblazoned on a flag, has been used as well by the Boogaloo Bois, a loose affiliate of anti-government militias.

The Oath Keepers, an anti-government group like the Three Percenters, according to the ADL, were in DC and at a similar protest in Arizona last week.

Proud Boys

Members of the Proud Boys, the violent far-right group that Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during a September presidential debate, wear black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo shirts along with red “Make America Great Again” caps.

Kek flags

“Kek”, a phrase that has roots in online gaming, has taken on new meaning on the far-right. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Kek is the “‘deity’ of the semi-ironic ‘religion’ the white nationalist movement has created for itself online”. The word is used alongside the meme of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that has been appropriated as a mascot of white nationalists. The Kek flag resembles a Nazi war flag, with a Kek logo replacing the swastika and the colour green in place of red.

Crusader crosses

The shooter who committed the 2019 massacre at a New Zealand mosque appropriated symbols of the Crusades, and they’ve become popular with other far-right, ethnonationalist groups. The symbols, such as medieval-style helmets or Templar and crusader crosses, are meant to harken to an era of white, Christian wars against Muslims and Jews.

The Punisher

The Marvel comic anti-hero, The Punisher, has been adopted in recent years by white nationalists and neo-Nazis, to the dismay of its creator.

Intactivists

Anti-circumcision activists, also known as “intactivists” support banning all forms of circumcision. The intactivist movement often features anti-Jewish imagery. Last Wednesday’s demonstration featured protesters carrying anti-circumcision signs reading “circumcision is the mark of the beast of satan” and “outlaw satan’s circumcision”.

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Jewish student denies saving US ballot from mob

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(JTA) Brennan Leach wants you to know that the caption on the viral photo of her taken inside the United States Capitol building last Wednesday was wrong.

The Jewish college student wasn’t rescuing the august leather boxes carrying the electoral votes that would let Congress certify Joe Biden’s election from the mob of Trump supporters trying to stop that process. The photo was from earlier that morning, when she and other assistants brought the boxes into the US House of Representatives chamber, before the mob stormed the Capitol and drove legislators and staffers into hiding.

“It was a great honour and excitement, it was like a political-science nerd’s dream come true,” Leach told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about being asked to partake in the ritual.

Leach, 19, is a student at Northwestern University majoring in political science who returned to the Capitol this week to assist with the certification process because the programme that usually supplies high school pages is suspended because of the pandemic. Someone snapped a picture of her at work last Wednesday morning, which morphed into a story of heroism on social media that afternoon.

“Here are the women – Senate aides – who had the presence of mind and courage to transport and keep safe the electoral votes before fleeing the Senate,” said @RaeMargaret61, a Twitter user whose posting garnered more than 360 000 likes by last Thursday evening. “There will always be villains. There will always be heroes.”

In an interview, Leach recounted her experience.

“The scariest part of all of this was just how quickly things escalated, and it went from one minute kind of looking out the window and laughing at like ‘look at the crazy people outside’ to all of a sudden we’re locked in the chamber and people are banging on the door,” she said.

“We can hear them outside. We’re able to pull up social media and see literal pictures of people on the other side of the wall. We had Confederate flags in the back hallway, we had dozens and dozens of people pouring in through the Rotunda and so, you know, to see those images and know that kind of the only thing that stuck between us and them was the wall of the Senate chamber. It was an intimidating and, in a lot of ways, utterly terrifying moment.”

Her terror was compounded when Leach realised that she had left her phone in the chamber. She soon found a way to reach her family and reassure them that she was secure. Her father, Daylin Leach, a Democrat who served for years in both chambers of the Pennsylvania state legislature, couldn’t contain his pride, posting the viral photo on his Twitter feed.

Brennan Leach said the experience cast the contributions that elected officials make for their constituents in a new light for her.

“It’s moments like this where you’re really kind of in the thick of the work that these people do and are forced to recognise how much they really put themselves at risk, how much they give for the work they do,” she said.

Last Wednesday’s photo wasn’t the first time that Leach, who lives in suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County, has landed in the spotlight. In October 2016, at a televised town hall in suburban Philadelphia, Leach asked then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton about the potential damage to young women being caused by then-Republican nominee Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about women.

Clinton naturally appreciated the question, but soon Leach was in the middle of a political firestorm when she told a reporter that she had run the question by her father. Conservatives decried her as a plant, which she denied then and does now.

The elder Leach was outspoken as a legislator in calling out what he saw as antisemitism, and centred his politics on tikkun olam, meaning “repair the world” that has become a rallying cry for American liberals. (“Donald Trump isn’t a tikkun olam kind of guy”, he said at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. “He’s more a destroy olam kind of guy.”)

Brennan Leach said she didn’t like to mix religion with politics, but as she worked and studied politics, her Jewishness was on her mind. She was proud to meet Jewish senators, she said.

“It’s great to see Jewish leaders in the Senate,” Leach said. (Chuck Schumer of New York is poised to become majority leader, the most senior position ever held by a Jewish person in US government.)

Leach said she wouldn’t count out a career as an elected politician, but her sights were set elsewhere.

“My dream job is White House press secretary,” she said, explaining that it combines both her academic disciplines, political science and communications, and also offers a kind of political might on its own. Last Wednesday’s riot, which came after Trump told his supporters to move to the Capitol, made that painfully clear.

“Being press secretary” Leach said, “is the ultimate liaison between the president, who’s obviously extremely consequential in their message, and the rest of the world, the press and public.”

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