How Netanyahu's campaign against Israel's Arab citizens backfired

After being vilified, “Arab voters didn’t like that, and they decided to do something about it,” one expert said.
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Ali Khamenei Looked at Me
Yesterday Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, delivered his first Friday sermon in eight years, a fulminating but boring rant against America after the death of Qassem Soleimani. The rant brought back memories for me, like hearing a familiar Beatles song.Sixteen years ago, as an unwashed backpacker, I went to Friday prayers at the University of Tehran. I can pass as Afghan or Turkmen, and no one questioned me as I approached, walking in a large crowd. Delivering the sermon was Khamenei, then 64 years old and 15 years into his reign. Minutes before prayers, I turned off into an alley and watched the streets full of people drain into the university, until I was the only one left outside and listened to Khamenei’s sermon through the loudspeakers within. I remember little of it, other than the hammy and perfunctory sign-off, which was “Death to America, Death to Israel,”—but delivered without the venom I expected, and instead with the casual tone of a Catskills comedian at his thousandth performance (“you’ve been a lovely audience”).Then an amazing thing happened. Seconds after the word “Israel” stopped echoing off the empty street and the canyon of buildings, a convoy exited the campus, and turned onto Enqelab Street. In the middle of the convoy, in an armored sedan, was Khamenei himself, looking at me quizzically through very thick windows as he zipped past, perhaps 20 or 30 feet away.That was then. Since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, I suspect that he and other senior Iranian officials have upgraded their security protocols. Soleimani, who was Khamenei’s military counterpart, died in Baghdad. But America’s unwillingness to attack Iran’s leaders, even inside Iran, can no longer be assumed, and it would take only a minimal level of rationality for Khamenei to conclude that death could come from above (in an air-strike), below (a car bomb), or any other direction, and that he should minimize contact with random weirdos on the street.Killing Soleimani did not begin World War III, but it did start another familiar conversation, about whether the Iranian government is so stressed that it might topple soon. Washington’s “regime change” crowd has taken up this line, but of course their word is worth little. They are attempting to diagnose and prescribe in the same action: by saying that collapse is imminent, they are trying to make it imminent, encouraging revolution by convincing Iranians that revolution is inevitable anyway. When John Bolton, the recently departed national security adviser and an Iran hawk of long standing, says the regime “has never been under more stress,” it is impossible to know whether he is stating a fact or a desire.[Read: The endorsement Iran’s protesters didn’t want]What is clear is that the Iranian regime is facing public protests more intense than at any point in recent memory—perhaps beyond even the Green Revolt of 2009, which the government put down with near Tiananmen-like force. Sanctions are cutting the general population deeply; subsidies are being slashed; and after the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner filled with Iranians—and the subsequent denial, then acceptance, of responsibility—hatred of the regime is rising fast. The images from Iran show beyond doubt that large crowds of Iranians do not fear the reaction of their government, and that they are willing to risk becoming its latest victims.But I hesitate to infer from these images imminent regime collapse. In Iran, like in many other countries, elite opinion is a poor guide to popular opinion. Visitors to Iran—especially journalists—usually spend their time in big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. In the rare cases when they enjoy real freedom of movement and can spend more than a few days in the country, they might add Mashhad and Tabriz.On that same backpacking trip, in Tehran and Isfahan, I met many Iranians whose greatest fear was that their government would develop nuclear weapons, thus guaranteeing its survival—and their own captivity in a totalitarian theocracy—for the next half-century or more. The mood in Tehran in particular was depressive. Even during the Green revolt, they thought rebellion was pointless, because the government would outlast the protests. The only adversary to the Iranian government that mattered, they said, was the United States, whose intervention they both feared and desired, like a rough course of chemo that was the last chance to shrink a cancer that their own body had failed to contain.The best places to find these forlorn liberals, I found, were on the hiking trails on the northern edge of Tehran. There they picnicked together and disappeared, like Winston and Julia in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, into the safety of nature, for a glass of wine and maybe a roll in the grass.[Read: Qassem Soleimani haunted the Arab world]But when the regime called for protests and parades, the streets filled with Iranians just as enthusiastic about their government as my Tehran friends were depressed by it. I mingled with them (I have highly incriminating photos of my younger self, browsing Holocaust denial pamphlets on the street, to prove it) and have no doubt about their sincerity. Many said they were not from Tehran but from smaller cities and towns—some of which I later visited, and where people were relatively content with the mullahs’ rule. They had been bused into Tehran for the parades, in classic authoritarian rent-a-mob fashion. But they were no less Iranian than the cosmopolitan residents of the capital.The assassination of Soleimani will, naturally, perturb those regime supporters who filled the streets. What may be less obvious, though, is that even some of the regime’s critics will mourn the man’s death. Soleimani headed the Quds Force, and his primary role was the expansion of Iran’s overseas power through relationships with proxy militias. Unlike other regime figures, he was not identified with oppression domestically but with Iran’s fights overseas against groups that consider themselves enemies not only of Iranian mullahs but of Iran as a whole. Soleimani fought against ISIS, which did not distinguish between Iranians who loved Khamenei and those who did not; he fought against Saudi Arabia, a country that has vilified Shia and Persians for its entire existence. As such he was not the divisive figure within Iran that he was in, say, Iraq or Syria, both of which have large populations who suffered greatly under the brutality of his allies. Iranians who hate their government could simultaneously appreciate its efforts to keep Sunnis, especially Sunni Arabs, from overrunning its borders. And since Soleimani kept the barbarians from the gates, I would expect that many Iranians who disliked him are nonetheless rattled by his death.Two weeks have passed since the Trump administration decided, after years of forbearance, to hit Iran’s leaders. The Iranian regime knows that many American weapons formerly housed in their scabbards are now drawn, and their security requires a vigilance they have never experienced. But the Iranian people are, for the first time in decades, worried about whether the leaders who have been their captors are not also their protectors, and whether the U.S. cares about their survival, once those leaders have been eliminated. The year 2020 is a year of pessimism for many Americans. Imagine how it looks to an Iranian.
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The Kremlin Inches Closer to the Biden Plot
Somewhere near the heart of the Ukraine scandal is Dmytro Firtash. Evidence has long suggested this fact. But over the past week, in a televised interview and in documents he supplied to congress, Rudy Giuliani’s former business partner Lev Parnas pointed his finger at the Ukranian oligarch. According to Parnas, Giuliani’s team had a deal with Firtash. Giulani would get the Justice Department to drop its attempt to extradite the oligarch on bribery charges. In return, according to Parnas, the oligarch promised to pass along evidence that would supposedly discredit both Joe Biden and Robert Mueller.Parnas’s account, of course, is hardly definitive. Throughout his career, he has attempted to inflate his importance to make money. (Firtash apparently paid him a million dollars for his services, though it’s still not totally clear what these services were.) And his description of Firtash’s involvement raises as many questions as it settles. Still, the apparent centrality of Firtash should inform any assessment of Rudy Giulinai’s escapades and their entire Ukraine story.When commentators invoke the name Dmytro Firtash, it is usually followed by mention of his alleged connections to Russian organized crime and the fact that he is close to the Kremlin. These descriptions, however, understate his ties to Vladimir Putin. In his book Russia’s Crony Capitalism, the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund describes Firtash as a “Kremlin Influence agent.” A Ukrainian parliamentarian who investigated Firtash has called him “a political person representing Russian interests in Ukraine.” That representative of Russian interests is who Giuliani and Parnas apparently enlisted as their partner. The rapid ascent of Firtash, a fireman from western Ukraine, remains mysterious--although he once disgorged details from his past in a long chat with the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Bill Taylor, a description of which eventually emerged in a Wikileaks document dump. But it’s been widely reported that Firtash attached himself to the gangster Semion Mogilevich, one of the region’s most important mafia bosses, a man the FBI placed on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. (His lawyers vociferously deny any connections to gangsters.)When Putin ascended to power in 2000, he gained control of his country’s natural gas business. He placed his allies at the helm of the country’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, and he has routinely wielded that company as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. In 2002, Firtash became Gazprom’s most important middleman: He was responsible for selling Russian gas to Ukraine. Thanks to an extraordinary Reuters investigation, which burrowed into customs documents, contracts, and Cyprus bank accounts, the details of this arrangement are now well known. Gazprom sold Firtash gas at four times below the market price. When Firtash resold the gas to the Ukranian state, he pocketed a profit of $3 billion. Even as he amassed this fortune, bankers close to Putin extended Firtash an $11 billion line of credit.According to close-watchers of Gazprom, a chunk of this cash cycled back to Moscow in the form of kickbacks. Another chunk of this money was spent bankrolling Russian political influence in Ukraine. Firtash was one of the two primary patrons of the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych and his political party. (He also bought a television network for the sake of promoting the cause.) This meant that Firtash was also writing the checks that covered the cost of Paul Manafort’s services to Yanukovych. It’s worth pausing to marvel at the narrative symmetry of this scandal: Both Manafort and Parnas shared the same Russian-alligned paymaster.In 2014, just after a revolution chased Yanukovych from power, the FBI issued an arrest warrant for Firtash. Austrian authorities detained Firtash near his Vienna mansion. The indictment alleged that he bribed Indian officials on behalf of Boeing, which desperately wanted to acquire rare materials for the construction of its 787 Dreamliner. (McKinsey & Company, the now-vilified consulting firm, apparently vetted Boeing’s decision to work with Firtash and didn’t recommend against it, according to a New York Times investigation.)When Firtash needed someone to pay his pay bail--which the Austrians set at $155 million, the highest in the nation’s history--the oligarch Vasily Anisimov, a member of Putin’s inner circle, supplied the cash. Over the last five years, Firtash has successfully battled the Justice Department’s attempts to extradite him. He’s hired an army of American lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants, including the notorious Jack Abramoff and long-time Clinton friend Lanny Davis, as well as the Trump-supporting lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. His spokesman is Mark Carollo, who worked for Trump’s legal team during the Mueller investigation.The congressional investigation into the Ukraine scandal has largely skipped over Giulini’s efforts--which means that investigators have yet to delve into Dmytro Firtash’s possible involvement. But now that Parnas has added a fresh layer of detail to the narrative, there are some basic questions that should attract attention:IS IT POSSIBLE THAT THE PLOT AGAINST BIDEN BEGAN WITH FIRTASH? According to the Daily Beast, Firtash has long seethed at Joe Biden. As Vice President, Biden had vigorously promoted an anti-corruption agenda that included liberating Ukraine’s energy sector from Firtash’s dominance. In fact, when Biden visited Kyiv in 2015 and spoke before the parliament, he seemed to praise the Ukranian government for “closing the space for corrupt middlemen who rip off the Ukrainian people.” Firtash raged against this speech. He described Biden as an “overlord.” He said, “I was ashamed to look at this. I was repulsed.” If Firtash promised Parnas material that could be used against Biden, he was fulfilling a long-held grudge.Most narratives of the plot against Biden allege that corrupt Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin concocted the whole scenario out of a desire for vengeance. Biden, after all, had demanded the Ukranian president fire Shokin, whose office was a bastion of corruption. (Oligarchs notoriously pay handsomely for the allegiance of prosecutors, who bring cases against their enemies.) Over time, it has become clear that Shokin and Firtash are allies. Last September, at the request of Firtash’s lawyers, Shokin filed an affidavit in Austrian Court testifying to the oligarch’s innocence. How long have Shokin and Firtash been allies? Were they working together when the plot against Biden first germinated?WHAT HAPPENED AT NAFTOGAZ? Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman hoped to obtain a contract to export American natural gas to Ukraine. As part of this scheme, they seem to have launched a campaign to remove the leadership of the Ukranian national company, Naftogaz--and to install managers more favorably inclined to their bid. Given the complexities of putting together a bid, it’s puzzling that they would have focused so heavily on Natfotgaz, especially since other details of the plan were so distant from realization.Is it possible they were fixated on remaking Naftogaz because of Firtash’s long-running battle with the company’s reformist leadership? Firtash believes that the company owes him money and that it is unfairly preventing him from accessing stored gas that he believes he owns. Was Parnas’s team attempting a coup at Naftogaz on behalf of Firtash?WHAT DID GIULIANI DO ON FIRTASH’S BEHALF? Giuliani has consistently sought to minimize his ties to Firtash. But over time, he’s conceded that he spoke with the oligarch’s lawyers in Chicago and that he meet with his proxies in Europe. Did Giulani press Firtash’s case at the Justice Department? That is, did he fulfill the quid pro quo that Parnas alleged this week? Did he attempt to help Firtash avoid American justice in exchange for material on Biden? In October, The New York Times reported that the Giuliani met with officials in the Justice Department to discuss the case of a foreigner accused of bribery. Giuliani wouldn’t name his client, whom he described as “very, very, sensitive.” Parnas told Rachel Maddow that he overheard Giuliani discussing his Ukranian operation with Attorney General William Barr. If they in fact took place, did those discussions ever include the subject of Dmytro Firtash?WHAT DID THE RUSSIANS KNOW? Given Firtash’s past involvement with the Kremlin--given that the Russian state supplied him with his fortune, given that he did its political bidding in the past, given that a Putin insider loaned him the money for his bail--it seems fair to ask: Did he keep the Russians in the loop about his involvement with Parnas and Giuliani? Did he ever seek to enlist their help? These are admittedly speculative questions, but the oligarch’s background demands their consideration.Dmytro Firtash’s work in Ukraine undermined that nation’s democracy. He spent hundreds of millions entrenching the forces of kleptocracy. His machinations kept the country locked in Russia’s orbit. That he may have been involved in spreading disinformation about Biden for the sake of avoiding extradition, is the most important allegation from Lev Parnas’s trail of cable news interviews. It suggests that he may have attempted to reprise his past work on American soil, and maybe even succeeded.
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Progressives Warn of a Great Deflation
“Please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden!” a flock of teenagers pleaded in a series of videos posted to the social-media app Tik-Tok earlier this month.But as the Iowa caucuses draw closer, a Biden nomination is looking more likely by the day. Lefty groups are worried—and warning that a Biden win could crush the activist enthusiasm they’re counting on to win in November.The thousands of Americans who wait for hours in line to snap a photo with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and who fill arenas for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont simply will not be as enthusiastic about the former vice president, the leaders of nine progressive organizations, all of which are involved with organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts, told me in interviews this month. “I can’t imagine having Biden on the ticket is going to be the thing that energizes these folks to get out and do the door-knocking and have the conversations we need them to have,” said Natalia Salgado, who runs civic engagement at the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-wing advocacy group. “It’s incredibly concerning to me.”Despite the conventional wisdom that Biden, with his nearly ubiquitous name recognition and decades of experience, is the safest candidate to put up against President Donald Trump in November, some progressives fear that he might actually be the riskiest.Sanders and Warren, campaigning on promises to enact some form of Medicare for All, free public college, and a wealth tax, have delighted the leftmost segment of the Democratic base. Warren, with her steady stream of ambitious policy plans, has drawn consistently massive crowds, where attendees happily chant wonky slogans. Sanders raised $34.5 million in the last three months of 2019—far more money than any other presidential candidate. And more than 26,000 people attended Sanders’s October rally with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, making it the largest event held by any Democratic presidential candidate this cycle.Biden’s rallies are consistently much less well-attended. And although crowd size is not necessarily predictive of electoral success, it could indicate whether a candidate has a sizable pool of enthusiastic volunteers to draw from in the general election. A Biden nomination would trigger a huge deflation in enthusiasm, and a shrinking of that volunteer pool, progressives argue. “If a candidate that gets selected doesn’t have the type of energy and excitement from the troops—the people who give small dollars, the people who phone bank, who show up to rallies, it will be harder” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial-justice organization Color of Change.[Read: The kumbaya candidate]For many Democrats, that warning triggers an unpleasant flashback to 2016. Sanders, after losing the primary, was late to endorse Hillary Clinton. At least 20 percent of people who voted for Sanders in the primary did not vote for Clinton in the general election against Trump, according to one study. But every progressive organizer and leader I talked to for this story told me a variation of the same thing: They’re not concerned that Americans will choose Trump over Biden. They’re worried that, absent a Democratic candidate who excites them, many Americans might not vote at all.Democrats have two theories of how to win the 2020 presidential election: persuasion vs. turnout. Advocates of the former, generally moderates, believe that Clinton lost to Trump mostly because she failed to persuade enough moderate voters in swing states. But progressives say that an emphasis on turning nonvoters into voters is more important for a Democratic victory in November. They blame Clinton’s loss on failing to inspire and mobilize Americans: An estimated 4.4 million people who voted for Obama did not vote in 2016.This kind of mobilization strategy relies heavily on local canvassing, and some of the activists involved with grassroots progressive groups told me that they have serious concerns about being able to mobilize volunteers for Biden. Jackie Dempsey, a 53-year-old member of the Forest Hills, Pennsylvania, chapter of Indivisible, a progressive group, intends to campaign for Biden just as vigorously as she would for any other nominee. But when Dempsey asked other members of the group what they’d do if Biden was the Democratic nominee, she received a range of responses: “Some people said, I’ll vote for him but I won’t work for him,” Dempsey told me. “Some people said, I’ll work around him. [Others said,] I’ll make sure Democrats are registered, but I won’t even vote for him.”Linda Bishop, a member of Progress PA, a group based in Pittsburgh, told me she’s especially worried about youth organizing. “Will [older people] get out and canvass for him? You bet they will,” she said. “The younger people, not as much.”Young voters tend to prefer Sanders and Warren to Biden. Of all the 2020 Democrats, the two senators have the most and second-most support among voters ages 18 to 34, respectively, according to the latest national poll from Quinnipiac University. Several youth-led progressive groups have warned that a Biden nomination would be disastrous for enthusiasm. “In 2018, in states where we had progressive champions running on the Green New Deal, we saw that we could turn out huge numbers of young people to knock doors and organize their friends,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, the communications director at Sunrise Movement, a climate-change group that is led by a 26-year-old and recently endorsed Sanders. A Biden nomination “will make it harder for us to mobilize as many young people to give as many hours to help defeat Donald Trump this fall,” O’Hanlon said.Biden’s campaign insists that it has worked for months to engage and mobilize young people and college students. “Joe Biden is best positioned to beat Donald Trump because of his broad, diverse coalition, which includes support from younger voters,” said TJ Ducklo, Biden’s national press secretary. Biden also polls better among black voters than both Sanders and Warren. And a Sanders or Warren nomination presents its own risks for Democrats. Although a progressive might be more appealing to a particular segment of Americans, it might also turn off other voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats flipped 41 House seats from red to blue, the majority of the party’s winning candidates were more moderate. Candidates endorsed by lefty groups like Our Revolution and Justice Democrats had much less success. Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at Third Way, a center-left think-tank, cited those gains as a reason to stick with a more moderate presidential candidate this year. “Why would we think we can throw persuasion out the window in 2020?” she said. “We should probably think about running that same playbook.”[Read: The opportunity that Warren and Sanders passed up]In six key swing states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—Democrats would prefer a 2020 nominee who is more moderate, a November poll from The New York Times and Siena College showed. Among those same voters, Biden performed better than other Democrats in theoretical head-to-head matchups with Trump. Which is to say that, although progressives contend that nominating Biden would deflate the progressive base, it could be just as likely that a Sanders or Warren candidacy would dampen turnout with moderates. “If it’s Bernie, you’re going to have slightly fewer of the upscale suburban women and slightly more folks whose involvement has been in [the Democratic Socialists of America] and other progressive [groups],” said Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the anti-Trump movement. Like Biden, if Sanders or Warren wins the nomination, they would also have to figure out how to mobilize people who didn’t support them in the primary.Above all, progressives want to beat Trump. The Democratic front-runners have all pledged to support the eventual nominee no matter who it is. And this week, the leaders of six national progressive organizations sent out a “unity statement” to this effect: “While we firmly believe that either Warren or Sanders should lead our nation in 2021, we will, in the end, go all-out to defeat Trump no matter who the Democratic nominee is,” the statement said.Still, progressives can’t shake the feeling that they’ve seen this movie before. Like Biden, Clinton was once widely considered to be the safest bet to beat Trump. She wasn’t as radical as Sanders, the thinking was, so she could better appeal to voters straddling the political middle. She was a known quantity, a bridge-builder, a shoo-in. But then millions of American voters who had once voted for Obama didn’t vote for her. To some lefties, a Biden nomination feels like deja vu.“This is an exciting time,” Salgado said. “And I can’t imagine anyone that’s less exciting than Joe Biden.”
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New documents released on possible surveillance of ambassador
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Former Florida mayor gets prison after buying BMW, beach condo with $650G in United Way funds
A former Florida mayor was reportedly sentenced to 51 months in prison and required to pay full restitution Friday for embezzling more than $650,000 from United Way -- after a Navy veteran's testimony played a key role in his conviction.
3 h