What Happened Today: May 19, 2023
Assad's ignominious return to the fold; Heritage Foundation plans spring cleaning; Nadal's injuries loom
The Big Story
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was all smiles at an Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday as Arab world leaders welcomed him back into the fold after more than a decade of shunning him as a pariah, since his violent suppression of the Arab Spring revolt catapulted Syria into a brutal civil war that went on to claim the lives of 350,000 people. By greeting the Syrian president with a warm handshake before media cameras, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—often referred to by his initials, MBS—further solidified the Saudi kingdom’s independence from the United States and his own role as a kingmaker in the region.
While MBS said Assad’s “return to the Arab league [hopefully] leads to the end of [Syria’s] crisis,” not everyone in attendance was enthusiastic about the Syrian president’s appearance. Having previously staked a position that the Arab nations should not maintain relations with a “war criminal” such as Assad, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had been reluctant to sign off on the Saudi’s campaign to bring Syria back into the Arab league, and left before Assad made his speech to the summit.
But with several Arab nations casting off old grievances as of late, and China recently mediating a resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Assad’s close ally Iran, there was momentum building up to the Saudi reconciliation with Syria. Though the move comes amid simmering tensions with the Biden administration over its snubs of the Saudi kingdom and overtures to Iran. MBS wants the Saudis to be a central player on the world stage among “friends in the West and the East,” he said at the summit, a role that includes pushing for peace in the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Indeed, Syria’s ties to Russia and Assad’s return to the Arab League complicated matters for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was also at the Arab summit as part of his ongoing effort to drum up fresh rounds of international aid before Ukraine launches its expected counteroffensive against Russia. “The Saudis have a hand in everything at the moment,” Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C., told The New York Times. “The big question is whether they can coordinate these actions into a coherent policy.”
Read More: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/19/syria-bashar-al-assad-receives-warm-welcome-on-arab-league-return
In The Back Pages: Biden Trashes the Abraham Accords
→ The White House might have been quieter than expected about Saudi Arabia spearheading the return of Assad to the Arab League in part because the Biden administration is making a push to secure a landmark peace agreement between the Saudi kingdom and Israel, according to a new Axios report.
Citing two unnamed officials familiar with the matter, Axios says Biden’s team wants to get the deal moving before the 2024 presidential election cycle takes over Biden’s agenda. Skeptics of the push question whether any deal is possible given D.C.’s current diplomatic estrangement from the governments in both Israel and Saudi Arabia—and, given that, whether the media announcement about the deal may be intended primarily for domestic consumption in the United States and potentially as a form of leverage over the Netanyahu administration.
Last week, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was in Jeddah to hash out what a deal would look like with MBS, who seems to want to accelerate the ongoing slow-step reconciliation with Israel in favor of a full-on normalization of diplomatic ties.
That type of package would likely lead to more Arab nations softening their relations with Israel but would probably require Biden to send military deliverables to MBS, a move that could anger some Democrats, as members of Biden’s party will remind him that it wasn’t so long ago that Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for both the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights violations.
→ Streaming platforms continued their takeover of the traditional television model this week as The Wall Street Journal reports that ESPN’s parent company, Disney, is nearing the announcement of when ESPN will finally be available as a complete subscription service. Though the timeline remains to be determined, the move reflects the reality of so many consumers leaving cable-TV cords behind entirely in favor of streaming services. ESPN first dipped its toe into the streaming water in 2018 with the release of monthly streaming service ESPN+, but that platform has lacked access to the existing ESPN channel, which is often a marquee offering included in traditional cable TV bundles. The transition to a full streaming option will be a major disruption for cable providers as streaming continues to fragment consumers cobbling together their entertainment diet from an increasingly competitive menu of service options.
→ With several leading Republican candidates for the 2024 election promising to bring major changes to the federal bureaucracy, conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, in concert with some 50 other like-minded groups, is leading a $22 million initiative, called Project 2025, that will build out a Rolodex of sorts that the new president can tap into to replace the “deep state” with more sympathetic civil servants. “A private LinkedIn for conservatives” is how Paul Dans, who’s running Project 2025, described it to Semafor. “What fundamentally unites our coalition is deconstructing the administrative state.” The fight over the political alignment of the civil service began in earnest when Donald Trump was president, and promises to intensify with the money pouring into Project 2025. Along with the personnel database, the project will create a policy playbook and a set of executive orders that, should a Republican win, will provide that president with a plug-and-play conservative agenda.
→ As the culture war continues to inflect all facets of the corporate world, Penguin Random House has sued Escambia County School District in Florida after its school board banned several of the publisher’s books, including those by Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. Though the first of its kind for Penguin, the suit is just the latest legal battle in the wake of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and several other state officials pushing for new limits on books and educational content in their public schools.
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→ Rafael Nadal isn’t officially done with pro tennis, but the end is near. For the first time since 2004, Nadal says he won’t be competing at this year’s French Open, the major tournament that the Spaniard has dominated with a nearly impossible 14 wins over his career. Nadal, who will become old by tennis standards when he turns 37 in June, announced his withdrawal from the French Open at a news conference on Thursday. “It’s not a decision that I made. It’s a decision that my body made,” he said, a reference to the stomach-area muscle injury he suffered earlier this year at the Australian Open. It’s possible he’ll pick up some matches later this year after he’s recovered, but it will be the beginning of his likely farewell tour, with a goal of making a play for 15 titles at the French Open in 2024.
→ The Iranian regime hung three men on Friday, recommencing executions of the political prisoners who took part in the anti-regime protests that kicked off last year in reaction to the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody who was accused of insufficient observation of the regime’s dress code. Rebukes from the international community had led Iranian officials to pause executions and pardon thousands of political prisoners, but the regime resumed executions despite international opposition, including from the U.S. State Department. The move has sparked concern that the regime in Tehran believes it has largely subdued its opponents and now feels emboldened to carry out its hard-line authoritarian policies—executing political dissidents included.
→ The U.K. Department of Health is kicking off a campaign to reduce the number of young adults who are vaping by encouraging public school teachers to warn students about the dangers of the battery-powered products. Though health officials see vaping as somewhat less harmful than smoking cigarettes, the additives and nicotine in many disposable vaping products come with their own set of risks, addiction included. The classroom videos and printed materials offered to teachers will come along with renewed effort by government agencies to crack down on vape sales to underage buyers. Some 40 nations worldwide have outright banned vapes, while some countries like the United States have tried to regulate the market. That hasn’t worked out so well, though—for American kids, at least—with recent estimates showing that at least 14% of U.S. high schoolers are active vape users.
→ Making his first public appearance since being gravely wounded in a stabbing attack last summer at an upstate New York literary event, novelist Salman Rushdie was onstage at PEN America’s annual gala on Thursday to accept the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Rushdie, who’d been dealing with the lingering threat of a fatwa from the Iranian government because of the satirical depiction of the prophet Muhammad in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, took to the podium wearing a tinted lens over the eye he’d lost sight in because of the attack. “It’s nice to be back,” he said, “as opposed to not being back, which was also an option. I’m pretty glad the dice rolled this way.”
TODAY IN TABLET:
How Hebrew Kept Us a People by Stanley Dubinsky and Hesh Epstein
The story of how the mystical language came to be, why it was detested by many, and how it reemerged as an anchor of Jewish identity
The Facts Behind the Fiction by Jamie Betesh Carter
How one woman’s true family story of fleeing Cuba inspired another writer’s novel
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This piece was originally published in Tablet, November 2022
Biden Trashes the Abraham Accords
Bibi wants peace with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis probably want it, too. But the White House has other ideas.
By Tony Badran
In an interview a week before his victory in Israel’s general election, Benjamin Netanyahu stated his intention to achieve peace with Saudi Arabia if he returned to the prime minister’s office. “I think there’s a chance I will achieve it, because I think Saudi Arabia … know[s] that I’m absolutely committed to preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu added.
The administration’s response to Netanyahu’s declared priority of seeking a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia took a page out of a familiar playbook: use the Palestinians to throw Israel on the defensive, this time in the form of an impending FBI investigation into the accidental death of reporter Shireen Abu Akleh. The fact that the U.S. had participated in Israel’s own investigation of the incident, and approved its conclusions, meant nothing—as did the absence of any clear grounding for such an investigation in U.S. law. The investigation was a “values feint”—highlighting how Israeli policies under Netanyahu supposedly clash with U.S. values, in order to make it harder for Israel to achieve its goals in other areas.
The Biden administration’s policy is not driven by personal dislike for Netanyahu, as reporters and columnists never tire of asserting, or by any demonstrable interest in the welfare of Palestinians, but by the fact that its regional priorities are starkly at odds with Israel’s. A couple of days after Netanyahu’s interview, U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein pranced into Beirut to receive the Lebanese signature on his maritime border deal, in which the White House forced Israel to concede to all of Hezbollah’s demands. Standing next to Hochstein at a press briefing was Elias Bou Saab, one of the Hezbollah cutouts in the “Lebanese government” who serve as interlocutors with the U.S. “I have heard about the Abraham Accord,” Bou Saab opined. “Today there is a new era. It could be the Amos Hochstein accord.”
Even in his clownishness, the Lebanese functionary correctly telegraphed the Biden administration’s desire to replace the Abraham Accords with a different framework, representing a new set of priorities. Netanyahu’s vision, expressed in terms of a regional alignment facing the Iranian threat, is one the administration is actively working to bury.
The Biden administration’s discomfort with the Abraham Accords has been nothing short of comical, including a near-pathological aversion to using the term “Abraham Accords”—substituting instead the phrase “normalization agreements.” The peak expression of that attitude came last year in a bizarre exchange between a State Department reporter and spokesman Ned Price, in which Price repeatedly refused to utter the words “Abraham Accords,” replying each time to the reporter’s use of the term with the phrase “normalization agreements,” like a zombified cult member or one half of a diplomatic version of Laurel and Hardy.
The reason for the administration’s hostility to the Abraham Accords goes beyond jealousy or the desire to deny credit to a hated predecessor. There are significant matters of substance and strategy at stake. The Abraham Accords framework is fundamentally opposed to the Obama-Biden vision for the region. Whereas the Abraham Accords framework draws a bright line separating the U.S.-allied camp from Iran and its camp, the Obama-Biden vision turns the very concept of friend and foe on its head, elevating Iran and downgrading allies under the pretext of creating “equilibrium” or “balance.” The problem the White House faces is that the accords are popular: The biblical name alone resonates with the American public.
In the wake of Ned Price’s unintentionally comic attempt to disappear the term “Abraham Accords,” the Biden administration made a tactical adjustment to its presentation, if not to its policy. Drawing on the practice perfected during its incarnation as the Obama administration, team Biden has manipulated language associated with or adjacent to the Abraham Accords to torque it toward its own alternative policy framework, thereby emptying the accords of their meaning—while keeping the popular name.
The administration continued this shift by reemphasizing the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a change in policy emphasis that it accompanied with a shift in language. “While we support normalization between Israel and countries in the Arab world,” Price explained, “it’s also not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that’s very important.”
See how the shell game works? “Peace” is reserved for agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. The Abraham Accords are therefore not “real” peace agreements, but “normalization” agreements—which are meaningful only insofar as they lead back to the Palestinians, thereby reaffirming Obama’s UNSCR 2334 parameters as the only meaningful avenue for U.S. regional policy.
Behind this lexical shift, of course, is something more than the desire to put Palestinians at the center of the region once more. An Israeli-Gulf agreement that might also include Saudi Arabia isn’t a “peace agreement” because, whatever the economic and cultural benefits of closer relations might be, it is also an alliance of regional states against Iran. The administration’s linguistic reshuffling is therefore needed to introduce its Iran-centric worldview into the vocabulary used for the Abraham Accords, imbuing it with new meaning that fits the administration’s alternative vision for the region, which is centered around an American alliance with Iran.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement on the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords provides an example of how the Abraham Accords are being rewritten and reframed to fit a new regional agenda driven by the United States and not by any of the parties to the accords. Blinken’s statement made sure to append the term “normalization agreements,” thereby changing “the Abraham Accords” into “the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements.”
More importantly, Blinken inserted the term “regional integration” in explaining the policy approach that the administration is promoting through the accords. A casual listener is thereby encouraged to imagine that “regional integration” means strengthening Israeli-Arab relations within the Abraham Accords framework, while the administration is in fact rewriting that framework to fit team Obama-Biden’s focus on strengthening U.S. relations with Iran.
That disguising this policy switcheroo is indeed the function of “regional integration” is evident from an op-ed under President Biden’s name that was published in The Washington Post a couple of months before Blinken’s statement. The occasion for the op-ed was Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, following a visit to Israel. The piece used that association as camouflage to promote the “regional integration” alternative framework, which was unmistakably about pressing U.S. allies to prop up—“integrate”—Iran and its regional holdings. Hence, when offering an example of such “integration,” the op-ed did not discuss advancing a Saudi-Israeli agreement. Rather, it pointed to the role one of Tehran’s regional equities—Iraq—played in furthering Saudi dialogue ... with Iran.
A month after Blinken’s statement, the administration announced it had successfully brokered the maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon. When making the announcement, a senior White House official explained to reporters how the deal should be understood as a manifestation of the Biden administration’s vision of “a more stable, prosperous, integrated region.” The examples the official offered involved other Iranian puppet states: Yemen and Iraq. Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia was notably absent from the “regional integration” agenda.
The Lebanon maritime deal, which the Biden team puffed up as “historic,” consisted of a package of Israeli concessions to Iran’s foremost regional equity, Hezbollah. The administration’s messaging infrastructure, in both D.C. and Israel, promptly classified the deal as more meaningful than the Abraham Accords—since it was an agreement with an Iranian asset, which is what the Obama-Biden framework defines as “peace.” The Obama-Biden echo chamber amplified the “depressurizing/deescalating” message to magnify the importance of the maritime deal as one that actually “prevents conflict,” as opposed to the Abraham Accords, which were “out of conflict zone” agreements—a riff on their initial derision of the Abraham Accords as not being “real” peace agreements, since those Arab states were never at war with Israel.
Taken together with the Biden administration’s sustained information campaign against the Saudis over “values” as well as energy policy, the offer America is making its two leading regional allies is clear: Forget the anti-Iran Abraham Accords framework. The path to team Obama-Biden’s approval is through “regional integration” with Iran.
This is appeasement of Iran and throwing Israel under the bus and the American Jewish establishment sits in silence
In addition to, and perhaps even more than hating the Abraham Accords for isolating Iran, the Obama-Biden administration despised one of its central tenets which was to finally denounce and ultimately dismiss the ever-antagonistic Palestinians as the pains in the asses they historically have been to the entire region. The Accords were instrumental in putting them in their place, and calling them out for being the belligerent brats they are.
No sooner did Biden take office, and with his administrations dismissal of the Abram Accords, did the Palestinians know they could act up again and unleash their murderous rampages against Israel with fresh Iranian (and make no mistake, the US’s as well) backing,
The Obama-Biden administrations have a visceral hatred for Israel, and BiBi in particular - always have, always will.