The Jerusalem Post has put together its annual list of '50 most influential Jews' who have impacted the world last year, and have the potential to affect change in years to come.
The Jewish woman leading negotiations with Iran
As Washington’s chief negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman has an extraordinary job.
Not only must she – as a Jewish American woman negotiating directly with the Islamic Republic’s leadership – clinch a comprehensive, airtight nuclear deal for President Barack Obama, she must then help sell it back at home to the American Jewish community and try the same with the Israeli public.
“I know that in the Jewish community here in America, a community I’m proud to be part of, there’s been a lot of discussion during the past few weeks about our relationship with Israel,” Sherman told the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism last month. “Every time I hear President Obama talk about issues that matter to American Jews... I’m always struck [by] how personally he feels about those issues and how personally he feels about his connection to the Jewish people and to Israel.”
Perhaps more than any other Jewish figure in the international sphere, she has come to represent the skeptical refrain among the US Diaspora regarding Israel’s leadership: On Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t speak for me.
“This deep-seated feeling is what drives [Obama’s] unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and his desire to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state,” she continued. “It’s also what drives this administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear threat.”
Sherman’s role in the development of the Lausanne framework cannot be understated: For two years, she has led the intensive, bilateral effort with Iran on the sidelines of the P5+1 negotiations, serving as point for the United States.
Throughout the negotiations, she has been fond of likening the task to a diplomatic Rubik’s Cube, with various complex challenges intertwined with one another. She insists they must all be solved for the United States to accept a nuclear deal, and that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The under-secretary of state for political affairs has experience in nuclear negotiations: She led talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration, which produced a framework that its former leader, Kim Jong Il, ultimately abandoned for weapons in 2006.
Although her peers have widely hailed her as competent, her failure to read the North Korean leader has driven critics of her work with Iran. The State Department rejects the comparison, however, stating instead that a successful nuclear deal with Tehran may well serve as a model for Pyongyang going forward.Dianne Feinstein
Netanyahu’s critic on the Iranian file
With Benjamin Netanyahu en route to Washington to deliver his controversial address to Congress in March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein took to CNN and uttered a phrase that encapsulated the sentiments of Jewish Democrats who were fed up with Netanyahu’s diplomatic maneuverings. “He doesn’t speak for me on this,” Feinstein said plainly after the prime minister claimed that he was going to Washington to speak on behalf of world Jewry. “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the [US] Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly.”
As an effective and vocal advocate for an alternative approach to US-Israel policy within the Democratic Party, the veteran senator from California has spent 22 years representing a state with a sizable Jewish community.
In an exclusive interview via email, Feinstein spoke to The Jerusalem Post
about maintaining the strategic alliance between the US and Israel despite the current tension between their two leaders, and gave her assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat.The Jewish community is a particularly active group in American political life. Why do you think that is, and how do you identify with it?
Like many other groups that have come to the United States, American Jewish immigrants came here seeking a better future for their children, economic opportunity, freedom and tolerance. I remember as a little girl feeling so grateful to live in this country as Jews were brutally killed at the hands of Nazis in Europe. Standing for Israel is of particular importance in saying “Never again” to the Holocaust.The historian Simon Schama likes to say that the Jewish community is defined by arguments: that a diversity of thought is essential to Jewish life. In your experience, have Jewish world interests – at home in California, here in Washington and over in Israel – been uniform or diverse?
The Jewish community, like any other group, is diverse – and I see that as a strength. There is no one “Jewish way of thought.” For example, on Iran, it was “conventional wisdom” that American Jews opposed the framework agreement, but I know countless Jews who think an agreement with Iran is not only desirable but necessary to protect Israel’s future. People who love and support a vibrant Israel can have very different policy views.Over the course of two decades in the Senate, you have played a unique role in fostering the US-Israel relationship, and in maintaining bipartisan support for the fostering of that relationship. What are some moments you are particularly proud of, or remember as politically challenging?
I am very proud of the tremendous amount of military aid we provide to Israel, year after year. As a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Intelligence Committee, I know the value of each of those dollars, and it is money very well spent. Among the most difficult times have been the periods of war. Whether it is seeing images of Israelis run for cover from Hamas rockets or Palestinian children playing in rubble in the Gaza Strip, war is heartbreaking.
There has been so much human suffering on both sides, that’s what makes this issue so emotional and difficult to resolve.Some leaders in the Israeli and American Jewish establishment say that US-Israel relations are at an historic nadir. Do you consider that characterization accurate?
The US-Israel relationship may be strained, but the core of that relationship – US support for an independent and secure homeland for the Jewish people – remains unchanged. Allies rarely agree on everything, and we have our differences with Israel. But the real problems come when those disagreements become politicized. The US-Israel relationship must transcend domestic politics. Israel’s security is too important an issue on which to score political points.You’ve said previously that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not speak for you, and have criticized his policies and stagecraft politics, particularly when it comes to Iran. Vice President Joe Biden said last week, “The criticism that Israel is too concerned, I find preposterous.” Do you understand where Netanyahu is coming from?
Prime Minister Netanyahu – like all of us – is concerned about Israel’s security and well-being. As an American, it is difficult for me to fully understand his situation, but my assessment on Iran is that a military, maximalist approach is not a positive alternative to diplomacy. Offering unrealistic demands, which is akin to advocating for a major war, makes no sense – especially when the Middle East is already burning. We don’t need more war when a verifiable diplomatic agreement can accomplish the task at hand. I have known Foreign Minister Zarif for many years and I believe he is sincere about the Iranian desire to find an agreement.
We may never have this opportunity again, and it would be a waste to throw away diplomacy in favor of military action.If you could change a single component of the Lausanne framework, what would you do? In your opinion, what should Israel’s policy be?
The framework for a nuclear deal with Iran is a good one, squarely in the national security interests for both the United States and Israel. I’ve spent a lot of time examining the framework and discussing it with many experts, including [US] Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. In a recent op-ed, Moniz – an esteemed nuclear physicist with decades of experience in this arena – wrote, “The negotiated parameters would block Iran’s four pathways to a nuclear weapon – the path through plutonium production at the Arak reactor, two paths to a uranium weapon through the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities, and the path of covert activity.” When Secretary Moniz goes through the technical facts of each of these pathways and how it is blocked, the strength of the framework is apparent. Secretary Moniz understands the science and his analysis is sound. Also, as he puts it, this is not simply a 10-year agreement; parts of it are for 25 years, other parts are longer. To the best of my knowledge, the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action] has been complied with, and as a permanent agreement is being drafted, I am hopeful it will be specific, understandable and enforceable. We now have to cross every “t” and dot every “i” so that there is no misunderstanding, but I am confident a final, permanent deal is within reach.As a leader of the American-Jewish community, what message do you have for the Israeli government on its settlement activity?
I am 100 percent opposed to the settlements. State-supported settlement activity is a primary driver of Israel’s international isolation and sends a signal to the world that Israel has no interest in the creation of a Palestinian state. In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu admitted that settlements have been used as a retaliatory tool. The existence of the settlements is a troubling reality, but the drive to further expand them is unacceptable.Dan Shapiro
Deftly maintaining Jerusalem-Washington ties
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has had a front-row seat for the numerous tiffs and tussles that have marked the troubled seven-year relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the so-called “Obibi” years.
First as a key Middle East staffer in the White House under Obama, and then since May 2011 as Washington’s man in Tel Aviv, he has witnessed – and felt – the tensions and frustrations that have marked that relationship: tensions over settlement construction, over negotiations with the Palestinians and – especially – over Iran. As ambassador, he has undoubtedly been the conduit of many an unhappy message between the president and the prime minister.
But Shapiro, 46, has also witnessed periods of great cooperation between the two capitals, such as continued funding and development of the Iron Dome missile defense system, the fight against efforts to isolate Israel over the years in various international forums, and deepening economic ties.
It is a testament to the strength of US-Israel ties that despite some of the worst friction between their leaders in recent memory, the two countries’ relationship is still humming along nicely.
The relationship between the president and the prime minister is an important component of the US-Israel one, but not the only component.
Ties with Congress are critically important, as are ties between the two countries’ military and intelligence branches, business communities and general publics. If the current trouble at the top is subtracted from the equation, the overall relationship still looks strong.
Shapiro has had a hand in making that so.
With his non-alarmist approach to the ties, with his palpable sympathy and empathy toward Israel, and with his fluent Hebrew, Shapiro has taken pains to explain to the Israeli public that the sky is not falling in on the US-Israel relationship. He is also doing his utmost to ensure that it never will.Ron Dermer
The diplomat who stirred the pot
Relations between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were already boiling as 2014 came to a close.
But tensions reached unprecedented heights when Ambassador Ron Dermer, known in town for his work in Republican politics, orchestrated the year’s most infamous speaking engagement back in January.
Without first informing the White House, just one day after Obama’s State of the Union address, Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress on the state of negotiations with Iran – two weeks before Israel’s elections, and three weeks before a critical deadline in the nuclear talks.
The planning, drafting and choreography of the speech were largely credited to Dermer.
“The prime minister’s visit to Washington is intended for one purpose, and one purpose only,” the ambassador told an audience in Florida in the lead-up to the speech. “To speak up while there is still time to speak up. To speak up when there is still time to make a difference.”
Dermer is not a product of foreign service: The Miami-born Israeli, who took office in Washington in July 2013, has worked in politics for much of his adult life. A graduate of Oxford and Wharton, Dermer consulted for both Republican and Likud politicians throughout his 20s and 30s. He was forced to renounce his US citizenship to become economic envoy under prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005.
One day before Netanyahu’s speech, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and pushed back against Israel’s criticisms of the pending nuclear deal.
Dermer was not present in the audience for Rice; he was, instead, hurriedly editing Netanyahu’s remarks with the prime minister in a suite at the Willard Hotel.
Privately the White House fumed at his absence. And ever since, the administration has largely blamed Dermer for the sad state of public US-Israel relations – not so subtly suggesting his departure would reboot the relationship.
That appears unlikely, however, as the envoy – one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants – speaks for the newly reelected premier. It has since become clear that as long as Bibi stays, so will Dermer.
With Dermer’s job secure, the Obama administration is recalculating.
Dermer’s role as diplomat is sure to be tested further as negotiations with Iran come to a close on June 30.
Introducing a hint of rebellion to the presidency
Although Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial position with very few executive powers, the present incumbent – Reuven Rivlin, the Jewish state’s 10th president – has managed to capture international headlines in a relatively short time.
Lacking some of the finesse and polish of his predecessor Shimon Peres, Rivlin is known to shoot from the hip and place greater emphasis on what he believes to be morally right, rather than favor what is politically correct.
Although he may couch his language in diplomatic terms, the meaning remains loud and clear. When he disagrees with government policy on any issue, he does not hesitate to say so.
When he speaks of equality for all citizens of Israel, it is not merely lip service. This seventh-generation Jerusalemite, who was raised in a household in which Arabs were genuinely among his father’s best friends and cherished colleagues, really does believe that Arab citizens should have rights equal to those of Jews – and that includes all manner of community services.
A Likudnik in his heart and soul prior to leaving the political arena in tandem with his election to the presidency, Rivlin has confounded, frustrated and bewildered those of his right-wing friends who are much further Right of Center than he is, and not nearly as democratic.
Rivlin is a committed democrat who speaks frequently of Israel being both a Jewish and a democratic state, and is convinced that the two are compatible.
His relationship with Israel’s Arab leadership is friendly, harmonious and devoid of cynicism and hypocrisy. He has made it his business to visit Arab towns and villages, where his command of Arabic stands him in good stead.
He is also on good terms with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and as far-fetched as it may seem at the moment, Rivlin may prove to be a key arbiter in the peace process, should it be resumed.
In addition, he has a well-developed sense of humor that on many occasions has proved to be an ice-breaker in seemingly unbridgeable situations.
Rivlin is a man for all seasons in the most positive sense of the terminology, and as such exerts influence throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
The man who could have led
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog is convinced that had he been elected prime minister on March 17, Israel would already have a better image, improved relations with US President Barack Obama, and an economy on the road to recovery.
In a phone interview, he said that all could have happened had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not taken a huge number of votes from the Likud’s satellite parties on the Right in the final days of the campaign.
“Had I been prime minister now, Israel’s standing in the world would have changed dramatically,” he said.
But Herzog is unwilling to live in a world of whatifs.
He wants to work.
That means heading an effective opposition that will try to bring Netanyahu’s government down as soon as possible, dealing with internal issues in his Labor Party, and learning from mistakes made in his campaign in hopes of presenting a more formidable challenge to Likud in the next general election.
“I think we had a successful campaign,” Herzog said, noting that the Zionist Union won “nearly 800,000 votes” (786,313), which he said is almost twice what Labor won in 2013 (432,118).
The Zionist Union’s 24 seats were actually just one more than the 23 won by Labor, Hatnua and Kadima in the last election. But Herzog says such numbers must be put into proportion.
“The number of votes we won in this election would have brought 28 seats last time, when there was a lower turnout,” he said. “At the onset of the election, we had 12 seats and Hatnua was nonexistent.”
It is also important to keep in mind that the Israel Democracy Institute’s monthly Peace Index polls have shown that the self-identified Israeli Left is dwindling, which gave Herzog a very small base to build on.
“The Israeli Left is under constant attack but it is getting stronger,” Herzog said.
Herzog clearly moved toward the Center during the campaign, refraining from using unpopular words like peace. His statements during the campaign about wanting to speak directly with the Palestinian leadership but settling for a peace process pushed by moderate Arab countries is similar to what Netanyahu has said in the past but veered away from during his campaign-induced rightward shift.
While Netanyahu has moved away from the Right since the election ended and now speaks about the peace process in every speech, Herzog has continued his push to the Center. On Monday’s Knesset session about Jerusalem, he came out firmly against dividing the capital.
Herzog mocked Netanyahu’s decision to distribute the former responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry among six Likud politicians, including putting vice premier Silvan Shalom in charge of the currently nonexistent peace talks with the Palestinians.
“There may be a peace process between Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom,” Herzog said sarcastically.
“Spreading out the Foreign Ministry’s functions shows they don’t take what government is about seriously.
They degrade what leadership is all about.
It’s just another example of Netanyahu’s circus, and it’s sad because the citizens will suffer.”
But Herzog knows that for him to become prime minister, he will have to focus on socioeconomic issues.
To that end, the entire Zionist Union faction made a high-profile visit to the troubled southern development town of Dimona on Sunday.
“Going to Dimona was hailed in the South,” he said. “We need to identify what our secret weapon is that can be the antidote to Netanyahu’s tactics of cannibalizing the right-wing parties. In our studies, we saw we had the potential of some 800,000 voters.
We will need to exceed our market share.”
Herzog’s 59-MK opposition will decide together whether to support any of the socioeconomic reforms of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. He has already decided to oppose Kahlon’s demand to shift part of the Interior Ministry into Kahlon’s portfolio, saying that “when you study the issue in depth, you see the move can be very dangerous, especially to environmental protection.”
The two-year budget Kahlon will try to pass in the fall is sure to spark sharp parliamentary fights, as will any steps Netanyahu takes that are perceived as threatening press freedom.
“We have a stronger opposition than we have had in years,” Herzog said. “It will be difficult for the government to pass any of its agenda. Netanyahu doesn’t want to do anything dramatic. The standstill will bring him down.”
And what will bring Herzog up? His answer: “Hard work, trying to learn from my mistakes, moving on, and keeping on climbing the mountain.”Nir Barkat
The country’s mayor
It could have been a scene from a Tom Cruise film in the heyday of his career. A beloved mayor on his way to work spots an alleged Arab terrorist stabbing a man in front of city hall, immediately rushes to the victim’s rescue and tackles the terrorist.
But reality is stranger than fiction, and Nir Barkat proved that February afternoon that sometimes, politicians can save the day.
Clips of Barkat and his bodyguard wrestling the man to the ground were heralded on the news and social media.
On that day, Barkat became the mayor of not only Jerusalem, but the country itself.The Jerusalem Post
sat down with Barkat in his office to discuss how he has managed to unite a city that is the epicenter of the Jewish world, and the myriad of opinions, desires and visions within it.What have you accomplished as mayor in terms of putting Jerusalem on the map? The Formula 1 and the Jerusalem Marathon were extremely successful; do you have any other grandiose plans?
Naturally, the city is important for over four billion people around the world. What you want to do is make it more accessible and a richer experience for those coming here. It may be for pilgrims who come for religious and spiritual reasons; complementing that, other areas of interest could include archeology, nature, culture and sport.
There’s an array of ideas on how to package and market the city to increase awareness and the number of people coming here, and expand the role the city plays globally.
I would like to see Jerusalem be the center of national and international events. We are in the process of building the largest convention hall in the Middle East, and the international opera will be here for the next five years. You will see these initiatives growing in scope and quality.At the risk of sounding silly, your visit with reality TV star Kim Kardashian and superstar rapper Kanye West, when they visited the capital, drew international attention. What do you think high-profile celebrity visits do for the city?
The city is open for all; it is open for anyone who seeks peace, whatever religion they are. I meet many high-level people when they come to Jerusalem, and Kanye and Kim are an excellent example of that.Jerusalem is the epicenter of how Jews do and don’t get along. How have you been able to navigate that?
Indeed, every two Jews have three opinions, and that’s true here in Jerusalem. There are 830,000 people, which means there are 830,000 mayors. But the reality is, we need a deep understanding that Jerusalem was not divided into tribes and there’s room for all.
You have to accept the fact that Jerusalem has a role for people different than you. If somebody doesn’t feel Jerusalem is his home, Jerusalem will not function.
Psychologically, once people understand that, then it’s a matter of how do we best work? Sometimes, I have to remind people of the role of Jerusalem; the role it played 3,000 years ago – as “Yerushalayim makes all of Israel
friends.” This is because Jerusalem wasn’t given to any specific tribe, everyone who came felt himself a peer to the others; Jews and non-Jews alike.
Jerusalem is a hub that influences not only its residents, not only the Jewish people; there’s no doubt in my mind it has huge influence around the world.Speaking of Jerusalem around the world, there are those who would like to see it divided, with east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. You remain opposed to this; can you elaborate on why that is and how you see Arabs and Jews coexisting within the city without giving them their own capital?
Ideologically, Jerusalem has to be a united and uniting common- denominator city. It will never function if, God forbid, it’s divided.
Nor do we know of any example of a city that was divided, that worked. The cities that are divided either stay dysfunctional, or get reunited after a while because they don’t work.
How can we bring new stuff to Jerusalem if its broken or dysfunctional by design? There are certain things that you don’t compromise on – Jerusalem is one of them.So what do you propose to bridge the gaps between Jews and Arabs within the city?
Well, you treat them honestly and fairly. You ensure all residents and children get – as much as possible – an upgraded quality of life. The city of Jerusalem does not differentiate and we must give everyone – Muslims, Christians, Jews; secular, national-religious – the same fair treatment. This is from my perspective as mayor, and thank God, the city council agrees with me.Jerusalem experienced some violence last fall, and it was a pretty terrifying period to live here. Now there has been quiet for a few months, with the exception of a few incidents; how were you able to maintain the quiet?
Fortunately, what happened last summer for a few months was violence by young adults; the majority were under the age of 18. The pattern was similar to gang behavior. Children that didn’t listen to their parents, wouldn’t listen to their principals, wouldn’t listen to anyone.
Unfortunately, in the last few years, we’ve had what we call the “Facebook revolution,” which is happening all over the Arab world; it’s not necessarily only Jerusalem. We had the unfortunate murder [of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by Jews] which got the genie out of the bottle, and the kids went violent.
We’ve responded in a variety of ways. First, we’re making sure it doesn’t pay to be violent. We’ve worked with everyone, the police, the national government, to increase punishment and ensure people who are violent pay a heavy price by law.
On the other side, we’ve worked with the community and local leadership and mainly principals of the schools, to expand school hours to 5 p.m., sometimes 6 p.m. – to help the kids and help the principals get the kids back into school, and have a better future. Parents and principals understand we care about the children, we don’t want them to take the wrong route, we don’t want them to become violent.Did you ever feel at the time that we were on the brink of a third intifada, as the media suggested?
Not at all. We have a very good relationship with much of the local leadership, and education and business representatives, and they were the first to suffer from the violence. I think that, generally, they realized the quality of life in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods is increasing from year to year. The trend is positive; the cooperation is positive.
Unfortunately, it’s not only here that we’ve seen this behavior.
Look around us in the Middle East and you’ll understand that the whole tribal way of life in the Arab world is changing very rapidly. I believe – and you can see it now – that we’re looking toward a much better future.
And I believe we came out of this round of violence much stronger than when we entered it.When high-level officials come to Israel, they meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and they meet with you. Do they ever talk to you about the strained ties between Israel and the US? What do you think the prime minister can do in the next government to try to mend what many say has been a problematic relationship?
You have to stick to the right strategy: Meaning, you can’t stutter. You need to convey the unity of the city of Jerusalem, and that we are not going to settle for a bad deal. A bad deal is worse than no deal.
Naturally, you have to invest time and energy with the different administrations around the world – including the US – to convince them of our point of view. But I leave it to Netanyahu and the national government to manage this challenging process.Ayelet Shaked
The justice minister facing misjudgment?
It is very rare that a politician achieves their career goal after less than two-anda- half years in public office. Yet that is what happened to fast-rising Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked, who was given the Justice portfolio two weeks ago – due to political errors by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Shaked’s combination of political acumen and good luck.
Had Netanyahu had the freedom to choose his ministers, the last person he would have chosen would be his former bureau chief Shaked, who left that job on bad terms following a feud with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.
Shaked, 39, has made many statements since she entered politics about the need for significant reforms in the legal establishment.
If she tries to accomplish all of them in the short tenure the new narrow government is predicted to have, she will achieve little. But if she knows how to prioritize and implements her desires gradually, she could have a serious impact in a short period of time.
That is what Shaked has done since smartly aligning herself with future Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, after the Netanyahus fired both of them. They initially intended to join the Likud or form a new right-wing party, but then recognized the shell the former National Religious Party had become – and saw it could be revived with Bennett’s charisma and Shaked’s hard work.
While it was Bennett’s positive persona that brought about 12 seats in the election two years ago, it was Shaked’s parliamentary work that helped Bayit Yehudi accomplish many of its goals in the previous Knesset, and earned her the respect of her peers across the political spectrum.
She will be remembered most for her leadership of the Shaked Committee that legislated increased ultra-Orthodox army service, which will soon be repealed; and a greater ability for haredim to enter the workforce, which is here to stay. Although Shaked would like to quit the Knesset to enable the entrance of the next name on the Bayit Yehudi list, former MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, she will continue to have a great impact on the laws that will be passed – as head of the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
Since her appointment was announced, the international media have taken aim at Shaked’s past statements made on social media and highlighted them (mostly out of context) in order to paint the new Netanyahu government as hawkish, adopting her as its poster child. But while she undoubtedly has agendas against the Palestinians and illegal migrant workers that are unpopular worldwide, she is neither Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane nor Attila the Hun.
However long the government lasts, it would be smarter to withhold judgment until after her term ends – because Shaked has proven her critics wrong before.Contributors: Michael Wilner, Herb Keinon, Greer Fay Cashman, Gil Hoffman and Noa Amouyal.