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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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World news in brief

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Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism

The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.

“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”

His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.

Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.

Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians

Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.

“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.

A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.

Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.

Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw

The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.

The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.

Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.

Leifer finally extradited to Australia

Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.

After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.

Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions

A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.

The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.

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Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public

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(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.

But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.

Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.

On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.

The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.

It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.

In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.

The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.

The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.

The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.

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Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever

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(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.

Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.

“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.

It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.

Many employed Jewish humour along the way.

Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.

Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.

The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.

An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.

“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.

As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.

But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)

The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.

Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”

Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.

A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.

“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.

Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.

“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.

But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.

“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.

As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?

As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”

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