The Passover and Easter holidays are this weekend. Around the country, families will gather to eat, drink, reminisce — and, inevitably, argue about what's going on in the news. And right now, the news is heavily focused on the Middle East. Between the Iran nuclear framework, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election success in Israel, and ISIS, there will be plenty to discuss.
And, good news for those celebrating Passover: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has officially endorsed your family's right to discuss Middle Eastern politics at the Seder.
Here are some topics that are likely to come up at your family's feast, and some pointers for how to respond to what your relatives may say.
Your aunt says: "People should give Obama more credit on the Middle East. Remember how bad things got under Bush?"
It's true that Obama has not gotten the US bogged down in any Iraq- or Afghanistan-style wars. And of course Obama has also had a more recent success with the new framework for the Iran nuclear deal. The terms of that agreement look very good, and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon would make the US and its allies safer for years to come.
So if your criteria for success are "no new wars that require boots on the ground" and "keep Iran from getting a bomb," then Obama is looking pretty good right now. He campaigned on those goals and has stuck with them in office, and that makes a lot of people happy.
But there have been a lot of changes in the Middle East since Obama took office — and he has struggled to respond well to them.
Conflicts have exploded in Syria, Libya, and now Yemen. But Obama has stuck with the same policy of limited engagement each time, even though it doesn't seem to be working very well. He has partnered with local proxies, including dictators, and sent drones and small numbers of special forces troops to back them up, but those countries are still in chaos, and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are reaping the benefits. It's pretty hard to look at all of that and feel thrilled at how things are going.
Your brother-in-law asks: "Why is Obama throwing Israel under the bus?"
Your brother-in-law is correct that US-Israel relations are pretty poor right now. He is wrong, though, that Obama hates Israel and is deliberately destroying the US-Israel alliance. Obama, after all, has given Israel lots of security assistance by funding the Iron Dome missile defense system, as just one example.
What you're actually seeing is tension between the US and Israeli leaders over the Israel-Palestine peace process and Iran. Those disagreements aren't new; George W. Bush clashed with Israeli leaders over both. But the disputes are getting much sharper, and Netanyahu is pushing back — a lot. His March 3 speech to Congress, on a Republican invitation behind Obama's back, was pretty unprecedented in terms of an Israeli leader undermining his American ally.
Netanyahu is trying to make these policy disputes into partisan political issues within the US so that Republicans will take Netanyahu's side and pressure Obama. And Obama, for his part, responded to Netanyahu's apparent rejection of the peace process during his reelection campaign by threatening to withhold some American diplomatic support for Israel at the UN. Those are pretty serious steps on both sides, and it's definitely true that Obama and Netanyahu dislike one another personally. But they're both driven by a desire to achieve policy goals, not by hating one another or one another's countries.
Your sister asks: "How on earth could Israelis reelect Netanyahu? Don't they realize how awful he is?"
Your sister's question is missing the point. Israelis don't love Netanyahu, but they're convinced he was the least unattractive choice available.
The Israeli election results didn't change the basic makeup of Israel's legislature, the Knesset, all that much. Netanyahu's Likud party gained a bunch of seats, but mostly at the expense of other right-wing parties. The center-left opposition also gained a bit, but again, not that much. This election was basically a reaffirmation of the status quo: right-wing dominance in the Knesset.
For decades, polls have consistently found broad Israeli support for a two-state solution. However, after the failure of the 1990s peace process, suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, and rocket fire after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, many Israelis became convinced that short-term concessions to the Palestinians would merely invite violence. Right-wing parties like Netanyahu's Likud profited from this attitude, and the Israeli peace camp has yet to discover a compelling alternative message.
Incidentally, this is what you should tell that sister later in the night, when she talks about how it's obvious that Israel doesn't want peace. The majority of Israelis really do. They're just hesitant to make the necessary concessions, in part because they doubt the Palestinians can deliver right now — and their votes for politicians like Netanyahu reflect that.
Your brother-in-law announces: "This Iran nuclear deal is abject surrender and paves Iran's way to a nuclear bomb."
That would be news to nuclear non-proliferation experts, who have expressed shock and astonishment at how favorable the terms are to the United States. The terms give the US a lot more than many observers thought would be possible. And it doesn't let Iran have a nuclear bomb — it makes it much, much tougher for Iran to build a bomb.
The terms require Iran to dismantle the bulk of its nuclear program. Iran has to give up 97 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile, for example, and about two-thirds of its centrifuges (the things you use to turn raw uranium into nuclear fuel). It's only allowed to use its oldest, most outdated centrifuges, and has to give up its newer models. It has to dismantle the core of its plutonium plant so that it can't be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. And so on.
What's left of Iran's nuclear program will be placed under super-invasive inspections for years or even decades to ensure that the program remains small and focused solely on making basic nuclear fuel. In every way, this deal makes it much harder for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.
Your brother-in-law isn't satisfied: "Doesn't Obama know you can't trust the Iranians? They'll cheat first chance they get."
It is in fact true that Iran has cheated on agreements in the past. And the Iranians have built covert nuclear facilities deep in the mountains before. So there's good reason to worry about them trying something like that again.
So the question is, what do you do about that? Ronald Reagan used to say, about the Soviets, "Trust but verify." Well, Obama's plan is to do a lot of verifying but not really do much trusting. That's why by far the most detailed part of the terms with Iran is about inspections.
Inspectors will be all up in Iran's business, from the country's uranium mines to its centrifuge factories, and they can go check out any suspicious sites. They get access — often, continuous access — for at least 10 years, and in some cases 20 or 25 years. The idea is that instead of trusting the Iranians, we'll just put every little piece of their program under inspection so we'll know if they try to cheat.
Your aunt says: "You should all thank Obama and that nice new Iranian president for solving this problem and bringing peace and friendship to the Middle East."
Your aunt has got to dial her optimism way back. First off, there's not even a full nuclear deal yet. This is just a framework of the very basics. And it punts on what was always going to be one of the hardest issues — how to time removing economic sanctions on Iran? So this could definitely fall apart and come to nothing.
Even if they do reach a nuclear deal, that won't bring peace and friendship between the US and Iran. Yes, the president, Hassan Rouhani, seems inclined to warmer relations with the US. But his boss, the Supreme Leader, is still a die-hard, old-school "death to America" type — lots of Iranian officials are. Iran is still a bad actor in the Middle East; it supports terrorist and rebel groups and is inherently opposed to American and Israeli interests.
Even in the best-case outcome, the US and Iran will still have pretty bad relations. Iran will still do bad things in the Middle East, and it will still be an oppressive, authoritarian theocracy. But things will be a little less bad, at least.
Your dad says: "Republicans and Netanyahu want to kill this deal so they can have a war with Iran — just like with Iraq."
It's easy to see how you might think that. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many Republicans say the only acceptable deal is for Iran to dismantle 100 percent of its nuclear program and to agree to all sorts of other non-nuclear stuff.
These are politically impossible for the Iranians to agree to, and everybody knows that. So it's pretty clear that these critics actually oppose any deal whatsoever. Senator Tom Cotton admitted as much, saying that the real goal is to sabotage any deal regardless of the terms, and to instead seek "regime change" — to topple Iran's entire government.
But it's not that these people simply love war and thought the Iraq invasion was an awesome adventure. Rather, they believe the Iranian government is, at its core, inherently radical, violent, and dangerously irrational to a degree that makes its very existence a huge threat. When they compare Iran to Nazi Germany, they mean it.
Republicans know this position is unpopular, though, since it leads to at least the possibility of invading Iran to topple its government, and Americans do not want to invade and occupy another Middle Eastern country. So they only hint at their argument, rather than making it openly, and it becomes really hard to debate whether they're right.