Netanyahu & Romney: a “decades-long friendship” (& Portuguese, Irish writers change their minds on Israel)

April 09, 2012


* “The two young men had woefully little in common: one was a wealthy Mormon from Michigan, the other a middle-class Jew from Israel. But in 1976, the lives of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu intersected, briefly but indelibly, in the 16th-floor offices of the Boston Consulting Group, where both had been recruited as corporate advisers. At the most formative time of their careers, they sized each other up during the firm’s weekly brainstorming sessions, absorbing the same profoundly analytical view of the world. That shared experience decades ago led to a warm friendship, little known to outsiders.”

* History has shown that when an Israeli Prime Minister and an American President are on the same page, this is good for America, good for Israel, and good for the peace process with the Palestinians.

***

* Portuguese blogger Romeu Monteiro: “Finally after visiting, I realized Israel is a democratic, tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, rapidly developing nation. A place I could live in free and more accepted than in my home country, and the only place I could safely set foot at in the Middle East. I found myself in love with Israel, something I never thought I would do and never really want to be.”

* Irish artist Nicky Larkin: “I used to hate Israel. Not anymore. The Palestinian mantra was one of ‘non-violent resistance’. It was their motto, repeated over and over like responses at a Catholic mass. Yet when I interviewed Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian government member, in the West Bank she sat forward angrily in her chair as she refused to condemn suicide bombers. She was all aggression. This aggression continued in Hebron, where I witnessed swastikas on a wall.”

* Larkin: “I have more important questions for my fellow Irish artists. What happened to the notion of the artist as a free thinking individual? Why have Irish artists surrendered to group-think on Israel? Could it be due to something as crude as career-advancement?”

***

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CONTENTS

1. “Why I no longer hate Israel” (By Romeu Monteiro, Yedioth Ahronot, April 7, 2012)
2. “Israel is a refuge, but a refuge under siege” (By Nicky Larkin, Irish Independent, March 11, 2012)
3. “A friendship dating to 1976 resonates in 2012” (By Michael Barbaro, NY Times, April 8, 2012)

 

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach three articles of interest below.

The other three dispatches today can be read here:

* “The frozen chosen”: How the Jews helped build Alaska
* How China is quietly building links with Israel (& Bolstering Israel-South Korean ties)
* How free markets, even more than “Arab Spring elections,” can transform the Middle East


PORTUGUESE BLOGGER: WHY I NO LONGER HATE ISRAEL

Why I no longer hate Israel
By Romeu Monteiro
Yedioth Ahronot
April 7, 2012

I’m a 22-year-old Portuguese gay activist and PhD student. I’m not Jewish, Israeli or even religious, but I am a Zionist and strong supporter of Israel, and I want to explain why.

My story begins at the age of nine, when I went to the school library to get the Diary of Anne Frank. I had no prior idea about the Holocaust and I could not comprehend such persecution. I had never met a Jew, but I was raised to see other people as similar to myself.

The book’s story haunted me: This girl, slightly older than me, hiding for years, confined, isolated, being persecuted for who she was, constantly fearful of being discovered... How horrible; how could this have happened?

A few months later, I discovered I was gay. I was 10 and in Anne’s attic: Confined, isolated, hiding who I was, fearing what would happen if I was discovered... I felt strongly identified with Anne and the Jewish people, and this feeling never abandoned me.

Shortly after, the second Intifada started. I began seeing Israel, a country which I knew almost nothing about, on the news constantly, for the worst reasons. I learned that the Jews had invaded Palestine after the Holocaust to get a country and were occupying and controlling the native Palestinians who lived in the remaining land.

The TV showed us these people blowing themselves up inside buses and cafes and I, like most people around me, thought: “How desperate must someone be to kill themselves like this? How could the Jews go from being oppressed to oppressors? Have they not learned the lessons of History?” I grew up loving the Jewish people but hating Israel.

In 2008, when I was 18 and in college, I found myself criticizing Israel and the Gaza Strip blockade in a YouTube video about the death of Rachel Corrie. I got an answer from an Israeli commenter about my age, who wrote that there was no blockade, as several trucks were crossing into the Strip daily.

This greatly confused me and I asked him to present me with his arguments in defense of Israel. I said I would change my mind if they were convincing. He wrote me a long message, telling me about the massacres of Jews in Palestine before Israel existed, the wars of extermination, and the indoctrination for hate of Jews and Israel in the Middle East, among other things, which he compared to several examples of the humanist character of Israel and its society.

I read it all and, after verifying the information, I was convinced.

ANGRY AND BETRAYED

My world shook. I became aware that I was making unfair judgments and spreading hate and false propaganda about Israel. I was sad with myself and I felt angry and betrayed that I had trusted so much in organizations I thought were fighting for peace, equality and against prejudice, like I saw them doing for gay rights.

I realized I was being fed ignorance and hate by people who were, at best, as ignorant and prejudiced as those they were “fighting” against while believing themselves to be enlightened individuals and making me believe it too.

I read more and more about Israel, and I became fascinated with the amazing story of a people who, against all odds, had managed to survive and remain united through centuries of persecution, fight for their homeland, rebuild their country and revive their language – just like a phoenix rising from the ashes, striving for freedom and peace.

I realized Israel is a democratic, tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, rapidly developing nation. A place I could live in free and more accepted than in my home country, and the only place I could safely set foot at in the Middle East.

I found myself in love with Israel, something I never thought I would do and never really want to be.

In 2010, there was the flotilla incident. Suddenly, all media were reporting about Israel. The news reports were grossly distorted and I knew I had to do something. I found myself arguing about it with professors at the university and I started sharing videos of the IDF through my Facebook account.

I thought I would be risking much socially, but I knew it was a matter of justice, as someone had to tell the truth and not allow Israel to be demonized with no right to defense once again. After the flotilla I kept posting pro-Israel stuff, and had serious and even ugly discussions about this issue with several people.

Each discussion revealed more ignorance and double-standards and made me a stronger Zionist and supporter of Israel and its people. I thought I was the only one defending Israel but I gradually discovered other people doing it.

Once, a friend whispered in my ear: “I am also more on the side of Israel... but, please, don’t tell anyone!” She was scared to voice her opinion, and this reinforced my conviction that I had to be vocal about my defense of Israel; I was speaking for many people who were afraid to do it.

At the end it’s a matter of justice. If there’s a people that fights for its right to self-determination and to live in peace, I will be on their side. If there’s a group that is demonized by prejudice and ignorance, I will fight prejudice and ignorance with them. If there’s a culture whose main values include tolerance for different sexual orientations, races and religions - clashing with another one that educates for intolerance and hate – I know which side I’ll support.

I am a Zionist and I support the right of the Jewish people to self-rule and to life in peace, like I believe every thinking human being should.

* Romeu Monteiro is an electric engineering Phd student. You can see his blog here.

 

IRISH FILMMAKER: “I USED TO HATE ISRAEL. NOT ANY MORE”

Israel is a refuge, but a refuge under siege
By Nicky Larkin
The Irish Independent
March 11, 2012

www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/nicky-larkin-israel-is-a-refuge-but-a-refuge-under-siege-3046227.html

I used to hate Israel. I used to think the Left was always right. Not any more. Now I loathe Palestinian terrorists. Now I see why Israel has to be hard. Now I see the Left can be Right – as in right-wing. So why did I change my mind so completely?

Strangely, it began with my anger at Israel’s incursion into Gaza in December 2008 which left over 1,200 Palestinians dead [in fact it is agreed by Hamas and Israel that 1100 Palestinians died, the vast majority of whom were armed male fighters -- TG], compared to only 13 Israelis. I was so angered by this massacre I posed in the striped scarf of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation for an art show catalogue.

Shortly after posing in that PLO scarf, I applied for funding from the Irish Arts Council to make a film in Israel and Palestine. I wanted to talk to these soldiers, to challenge their actions – and challenge the Israeli citizens who supported them.

I spent seven weeks in the area, dividing my time evenly between Israel and the West Bank. I started in Israel. The locals were suspicious. We were Irish – from a country which is one of Israel’s chief critics – and we were filmmakers. We were the enemy.

Then I crossed over into the West Bank. Suddenly, being Irish wasn’t a problem. Provo graffiti adorned The Wall. Bethlehem was Las Vegas for Jesus-freaks – neon crucifixes punctuated by posters of martyrs.

These martyrs followed us throughout the West Bank. They watched from lamp-posts and walls wherever we went. Like Jesus in the old Sacred Heart pictures.

But the more I felt the martyrs watching me, the more confused I became. After all, the Palestinian mantra was one of “non-violent resistance”. It was their motto, repeated over and over like responses at a Catholic mass.

Yet when I interviewed Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian government member, she sat forward angrily in her chair as she refused to condemn the actions of the suicide bombers. She was all aggression.

This aggression continued in Hebron, where I witnessed swastikas on a wall. As I set up my camera, an Israeli soldier shouted down from his rooftop position. A few months previously I might have ignored him as my political enemy. But now I stopped to talk. He only talked about Taybeh, the local Palestinian beer.

Back in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011, I began to listen more closely to the Israeli side. I remember one conversation in Shenkin Street – Tel Aviv’s most fashionable quarter, a street where everybody looks as if they went to art college. I was outside a cafe interviewing a former soldier.

He talked slowly about his time in Gaza. He spoke about 20 Arab teenagers filled with ecstasy tablets and sent running towards the base he’d patrolled. Each strapped with a bomb and carrying a hand-held detonator.

The pills in their bloodstream meant they felt no pain. Only a headshot would take them down.

Conversations like this are normal in Tel Aviv. I began to experience the sense of isolation Israelis feel. An isolation that began in the ghettos of Europe and ended in Auschwitz.

Israel is a refuge – but a refuge under siege, a refuge where rockets rain death from the skies. And as I made the effort to empathise, to look at the world through their eyes. I began a new intellectual journey. One that would not be welcome back home.

The problem began when I resolved to come back with a film that showed both sides of the coin. Actually there are many more than two. Which is why my film is called Forty Shades of Grey. But only one side was wanted back in Dublin. My peers expected me to come back with an attack on Israel. No grey areas were acceptable.

An Irish artist is supposed to sign boycotts, wear a PLO scarf, and remonstrate loudly about The Occupation. But it’s not just artists who are supposed to hate Israel. Being anti-Israel is supposed to be part of our Irish identity, the same way we are supposed to resent the English.

But hating Israel is not part of my personal national identity. Neither is hating the English. I hold an Irish passport, but nowhere upon this document does it say I am a republican, or a Palestinian.

My Irish passport says I was born in 1983 in Offaly. The Northern Troubles were something Anne Doyle talked to my parents about on the nine o’clock News. I just wanted to watch Father Ted.

So I was frustrated to see Provo graffiti on the wall in the West Bank. I felt the same frustration emerge when I noticed the missing ‘E’ in a “Free Palestin” graffiti on a wall in Cork. I am also frustrated by the anti-Israel activists’ attitude to freedom of speech.

Free speech must work both ways. But back in Dublin, whenever I speak up for Israel, the Fiachras and Fionas look at me aghast, as if I’d pissed on their paninis.

This one-way freedom of speech spurs false information. The Boycott Israel brigade is a prime example. They pressurised Irish supermarkets to remove all Israeli produce from their shelves – a move that directly affected the Palestinian farmers who produce most of their fruit and vegetables under the Israeli brand.

But worst of all, this boycott mentality is affecting artists. In August 2010, the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign got 216 Irish artists to sign a pledge undertaking to boycott the Israeli state. As an artist I have friends on this list – or at least I had.

I would like to challenge my friends about their support for this boycott. What do these armchair sermonisers know about Israel? Could they name three Israeli cities, or the main Israeli industries?

But I have more important questions for Irish artists. What happened to the notion of the artist as a free thinking individual? Why have Irish artists surrendered to group-think on Israel? Could it be due to something as crude as career-advancement?

Artistic leadership comes from the top. Aosdana, Ireland’s State-sponsored affiliation of creative artists, has also signed the boycott. Aosdana is a big player. Its members populate Arts Council funding panels.

Some artists could assume that if their name is on the same boycott sheet as the people assessing their applications, it can hardly hurt their chances. No doubt Aosdana would dispute this assumption. But the perception of a preconceived position on Israel is hard to avoid.

Looking back now over all I have learnt, I wonder if the problem is a lot simpler.

Perhaps our problem is not with Israel, but with our own over-stretched sense of importance – a sense of moral superiority disproportional to the importance of our little country?

Any artist worth his or her salt should be ready to change their mind on receipt of fresh information. So I would urge every one of those 216 Irish artists who pledged to boycott the Israeli state to spend some time in Israel and Palestine. Maybe when you come home you will bin your scarf. I did.

* Nicky Larkin’s ‘Forty Shades of Grey’ will premiere in Dublin in May. www.nickylarkin.com

 

A FRIENDSHIP DATING BACK TO 1976

A Friendship Dating to 1976 Resonates in 2012
By Michael Barbaro
The New York Times
April 8, 2012

The two young men had woefully little in common: one was a wealthy Mormon from Michigan, the other a middle-class Jew from Israel.

But in 1976, the lives of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu intersected, briefly but indelibly, in the 16th-floor offices of the Boston Consulting Group, where both had been recruited as corporate advisers. At the most formative time of their careers, they sized each other up during the firm’s weekly brainstorming sessions, absorbing the same profoundly analytical view of the world.

That shared experience decades ago led to a warm friendship, little known to outsiders, that is now rich with political intrigue. Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is making the case for military action against Iran as Mr. Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, is attacking the Obama administration for not supporting Mr. Netanyahu more robustly.

The relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Romney – nurtured over meals in Boston, New York and Jerusalem, strengthened by a network of mutual friends and heightened by their conservative ideologies – has resulted in an unusually frank exchange of advice and insights on topics like politics, economics and the Middle East.

When Mr. Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Netanyahu offered him firsthand pointers on how to shrink the size of government. When Mr. Netanyahu wanted to encourage pension funds to divest from businesses tied to Iran, Mr. Romney counseled him on which American officials to meet with. And when Mr. Romney first ran for president, Mr. Netanyahu presciently asked him whether he thought Newt Gingrich would ever jump into the race.

Only a few weeks ago, on Super Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu delivered a personal briefing by telephone to Mr. Romney about the situation in Iran.

“We can almost speak in shorthand,” Mr. Romney said in an interview. “We share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”

Mr. Netanyahu attributed their “easy communication” to what he called “B.C.G.’s intellectually rigorous boot camp.”

“So despite our very different backgrounds,” he said through an aide, “my sense is that we employ similar methods in analyzing problems and coming up with solutions for them.”

The ties between Mr. Romney and Mr. Netanyahu stand out because there is little precedent for two politicians of their stature to have such a history together that predates their entry into government. And that history could well influence decision-making at a time when the United States may face crucial questions about whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or support Israel in such an action.

Mr. Romney has suggested that he would not make any significant policy decisions about Israel without consulting Mr. Netanyahu – a level of deference that could raise eyebrows given Mr. Netanyahu’s polarizing reputation, even as it appeals to the neoconservatives and evangelical Christians who are fiercely protective of Israel.

In a telling exchange during a debate in December, Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Gingrich for making a disparaging remark about Palestinians, declaring: “Before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’ “

Martin S. Indyk, a United States ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, said that whether intentional or not, Mr. Romney’s statement implied that he would “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel.”

“That, of course, would be inappropriate,” he added.

Mr. Netanyahu insists that he is neutral in the presidential election, but he has at best a fraught relationship with President Obama. For years, the prime minister has skillfully mobilized many Jewish groups and Congressional Republicans to pressure the Obama administration into taking a more confrontational approach against Iran.

“To the extent that their personal relationship would give Netanyahu entree to the Romney White House in a way that he doesn’t now have to the Obama White House,” Mr. Indyk said, “the prime minister would certainly consider that to be a significant advantage.”

It was a quirk of history that the two men met at all. In the 1970s, both chose to attend business school in Boston – Harvard for Mr. Romney, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Mr. Netanyahu. After graduating near the top of their classes, they had their pick of jobs at the nation’s biggest and most prestigious consulting firms.

The Boston Consulting Group did not yet qualify as either. Its founder, Bruce D. Henderson, was considered brilliant but idiosyncratic; his unorthodox theories – about measuring a company’s success by its market share, and dividing businesses into categories like “cash cows” and “dogs” – were then regarded as outside the mainstream of corporate consulting.

As Mr. Romney recalled, the faculty and students at Harvard Business School routinely mocked the firm’s recruitment posters. “Boston Consulting was at the time a firm that seemed somewhat under siege,” he said.

But the company’s status as a pioneering upstart, nipping on the heels of bigger blue-chip firms like McKinsey and Booz Allen, fostered a deep camaraderie among its young employees, who traveled around the country advising clients like General Foods and the Mead Corporation.

Even in a firm of 100 M.B.A.’s, Mr. Romney and Mr. Netanyahu managed to stand apart, as much for their biography as for their brainpower. Mr. Romney’s father, a former governor of Michigan, had sought the Republican presidential nomination a few years earlier. Mr. Netanyahu had his own exotic résumé: he had just completed a tour of duty in an elite special forces unit of the Israeli military.

“Both clearly had an aura around them,” said Alan Weyl, who worked at the firm from 1975 to 1989.

Although they never worked closely on a project together, Mr. Romney and Mr. Netanyahu, competitive by nature, left deep impressions on each other, which appear to have only grown.

Mr. Romney, never known for his lack of self-confidence, still recalls the sense of envy he felt watching Mr. Netanyahu effortlessly hold court during the firm’s Monday morning meetings, when consultants presented their work and fielded questions from their colleagues. The sessions were renowned for their sometimes grueling interrogations.

“He was a strong personality with a distinct point of view,” Mr. Romney said. “I aspired to the same kind of perspective.”

Over dinner years later, aides said, Mr. Netanyahu would reveal the depth of his own scorekeeping, when he quipped, with mostly playful chagrin, that Mr. Romney had been “Henderson’s favorite.”

“His star,” the prime minister said of Mr. Romney’s time at Boston Consulting, “had already risen.”

Mr. Romney worked at the company from 1975 to 1977; Mr. Netanyahu was involved from 1976 to 1978. But a month after Mr. Netanyahu arrived, he returned to Israel to start an antiterrorism foundation in memory of his brother, an officer killed while leading the hostage rescue force at Entebbe, Uganda. An aide said he sporadically returned to the company over the rest of that two-year period.

Mr. Romney later decamped to Bain & Company, a rival of Boston Consulting. They did, however, maintain a significant link: at Bain, Mr. Romney worked closely with Fleur Cates, Mr. Netanyahu’s second wife. (Ms. Cates and Mr. Netanyahu divorced in the mid-1980s, but she remains in touch with Mr. Romney.)

The men reconnected shortly after 2003 when Mr. Romney became the governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Netanyahu paid him a visit, eager to swap tales of government life.

Mr. Netanyahu, who had recently stepped down as Israel’s finance minister, regaled Mr. Romney with stories of how, in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he had challenged unionized workers over control of their pensions, reduced taxes and privatized formerly government-run industries, reducing the role of government in private enterprise.

He encouraged Mr. Romney to look for ways to do the same. As Mr. Romney recalled, Mr. Netanyahu told him of a favorite memory from basic training about a soldier trying to race his comrades with a fat man atop his shoulders. Naturally, he loses.

“Government,” Mr. Romney recalled him saying, “is the guy on your shoulders.”

As governor, Mr. Romney said, he frequently repeated the story to the heads of various agencies, reminding them that their job as regulators was to “catch the bad guys, but also to encourage the good guys and to make business more successful in our state.”

A few years later, Mr. Romney had dinner with Mr. Netanyahu at a private home in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, in central Jerusalem, where the two spent hours discussing the American and Israeli economies. When Mr. Netanyahu informed Mr. Romney of a personal campaign to persuade American pension funds to divest from businesses tied to Iran, Mr. Romney offered up his Rolodex.

Before he left Israel, Mr. Romney set up several meetings with government officials in the United States for his old colleague. “I immediately saw the wisdom of his thinking,” Mr. Romney said.

Back in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney sent out letters to legislators requesting that the public pension funds they controlled sell off investments from corporations doing business with Iran.

Even as Mr. Netanyahu, a keen and eager student of American politics, has tried to avoid any hint of favoritism in the presidential election, friends say he has paid especially close attention to Mr. Romney’s political fortunes in this campaign season.

And the prime minister keeps open lines of communication to the candidate. When it was Mr. Gingrich’s turn to leap to the top of the polls, Mr. Netanyahu was startled in January by an article exploring why Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino executive and outspoken supporter of Israel, was devoting millions of dollars to back Mr. Gingrich. It described Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Adelson as close friends.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office quickly relayed a message to a senior Romney adviser, Dan Senor: the prime minister had played no role in Mr. Adelson’s decision to bankroll a Romney rival.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.