After a few minutes, the subject turns to my editorials, and, suddenly, he's not so diplomatic.
"Rob," he tells me, "people think you hate Israel. And people think you love Iran."
I'm not flabbergasted -- I do read our Letters to the Editor, and you should see the ones we don't print -- but neither am I flattered. Because here's the truth: I love Israel; I hate the Iranian regime; I'm not a fan of Hamas; and I'm very, very fond of Judaism and the Jewish people.
I gather this will all come as breaking news to many readers who have reacted so negatively to recent editorials. Those columns the diplomat ticked off were the ones in which I questioned whether divestment from Iranian companies would be enough to deter Iran's nuclear weapons development; whether Israel could exist as a Jewish state without making hard choices regarding its negotiating partners and its territories; whether any diplomatic overtures to Iran would be fruitless; whether American Jews weren't too quick to dismiss dialogue with American Muslims.
People out there think you're three clicks left of Noam Chomsky, the diplomat said.
I'm well aware, I told him. It's not just the letters, it's Kiddush. After Shabbat services, when the congregation races for the wine, challah and sprinkle cookies, it's easy to sense how deeply offended people are by what I wrote that week. "Hey Rob," an acquaintance will say as we shake hands. Then there's an uncomfortable beat. "I was going to say something about your editorial -- but never mind, it's Shabbat."
If studios have focus groups and politicians have tracking polls, Jewish editors have Kiddush.
"Am I left?" I asked the diplomat. I don't even know what left or right means anymore. At a moment in history when Israel's prime minister, from the center-right, ran on a ticket of unilateral withdrawal from the territories, something even the left opposed a few years back, and when the left in Israel advocates for a separation fence that its leaders once fought against, and when right and left are united in their disgust with the current government, these labels mean bubkes in Israel.
And they mean less and less here in the States. We have a Republican president whose policies many conservatives find abhorrent and a Republican governor who stands for green energy, stem-cell research and the end of Rush Limbaugh. I would vote for Arnold over any Democrat on the near or far horizon. Am I right?
These labels really turn worthless when we try to apply them to our foreign policy choices.
As bad as what's happening in Gaza -- a.k.a. Hamastan -- is, Israel's true existential threat is the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran led by the mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The reality of Hamas fed with Iranian arms in the south, Iranian-supported Hezbollah to the north and Iran filling the vacuum left by America's invasion of Iraq only amplifies Iran's danger in the region.
Israel's new defense minister, Ehud Barak, has spoken of a "Shiite banana" of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Think of how much worse it would be to confront a nuclear-armed Shiite banana.
What's a Jew to do? The June 2007 issue of Commentary landed on my desk with the cover headline provided by editor Norman Podhoretz's solution: "The Case for Bombing Iran." Inside, he lays out the dangers Iran poses not just to Israel but to Europe, to the Sunni Muslim world and to the United States. By the end, I was ready to push the button. Then I remembered Podhoretz's unwavering support for the Iraq War. Not a ringing endorsement.
So I read Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, who arrives at a diametrically opposed solution, arguing that a combination of sanctions, divestment, military preparedness and diplomatic carrots will strengthen the realists within a weak regime with a teetering economy.
All-out nuclear war or step-by-step?
I dipped into this massive dilemma in a prior column. Evidently, many people read it as being clearly opposed to the movement afoot to divest state employee pension funds from Iranian interests. I don't oppose it. I support it. I applaud the California Assembly for unanimously passing AB 221 last week, which requires the state's two pension funds with $441 billion in assets to divest from companies doing business with Iran.
The nation's public pension funds hold $1 trillion in assets, and legislators in at least 15 statehouses are considering similar bills (Florida passed its version last week, as well, and Gov. Charlie Crist signed it into law).
My concern, the shattered wine glass that tempers my wild enthusiasm for this cause, is twofold: These divestment bills take months or years to pass and once passed, offer a window of one or more years to complete the task. These efforts alone, in other words, are hardly enough. Zakaria and Middle East expert Gidi Grinstein both believe divestment needs to be joined with a credible military threat, diplomatic carrots and international sanctions.
"Divestment as part of a package of sanctions may not be successful on its own in stopping the nuclear project," Grinstein wrote me, "but compounded with the two other legs of credible and viable military option and a political package it may work. Effective outcome is not guaranteed, but decisive action here is very important."
By the way, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the Bush administration believes divestment will derail the larger diplomatic aim of isolating Iran. So the president is strongly opposed to these divestment efforts.
That George W. Bush -- such a leftist!