Commentary Magazine


Putin, Europe, and Historical Amnesia

The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

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The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

It’s been less than a full week since the crash happened, so perhaps the appropriate Western response is still coming. I hope so. But it sure doesn’t look like it. Instead the West appears to be as pusillanimous as ever in the face of Russian aggression.

A meeting of European Union foreign ministers could not even agree to impose an arms embargo on Russia, because the French don’t want to refund 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) that Russia has paid for the first of two Mistral-class amphibious assault warships due to be delivered in October. “We should have had an arms embargo quite some time ago,” said Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly.”

Just as difficult to comprehend is Europe’s willingness to continue serving as a financial outlet for rich Russians and big Russian companies. British Prime Minister David Cameron talks tough (“Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbors”), but he’s not rushing to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia either–something that could bite given the level of Russian investment in the City of London as well as in British properties of various sorts ranging from football clubs to swank apartments.

Naturally Europeans offer lots of excuses for inaction–for example one hears that sanctions now would lead Putin’s minions to discontinue their cooperation with crash-site investigators. Note how something that should be done as a matter of course–giving investigators access to a crime scene–is now being held hostage to the whims of drunken Russian thugs.

The U.S. is little better. While President Obama has imposed slightly stiffer sanctions than the Europeans, even he has not ordered the kind of “sectoral” sanctions that he has threatened (another red line crossed with impunity!). Only such sanctions would really punish Russia by denying Russian companies and individuals access to U.S. financial markets and to dollar-denominated trades.

All of this is entirely predictable, of course, but dismaying nevertheless. In a sense, the worse that Russian misconduct is, the less likely it is to be punished because the more evil that Putin does–the more territory his minions seize, the more innocents they kill–the more that the Europeans are afraid to provoke him. He’s a bad man, they figure; why mess with him?

The result, of course, is only to encourage Putin to commit further crimes. We’ve seen this movie before–it played across the continent in the 1930s and it didn’t have a happy ending. It says something about our historical amnesia that we are so ready to watch a repeat performance.

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Madeleine Albright’s Witless Commentary on Israel and Hamas

On CNN today, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the following observations: (1) There should be a cease-fire in the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, but Hamas is the one that hasn’t accepted one; and (2) Israel has the right to defend itself when being attacked by rockets.

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On CNN today, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the following observations: (1) There should be a cease-fire in the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, but Hamas is the one that hasn’t accepted one; and (2) Israel has the right to defend itself when being attacked by rockets.

But the bottom line, she said, is this is a matter of Israel not exercising proper “proportionality.” What she didn’t say, but surely she must know, is that Israel has exercised extraordinary restraint in this operation, far beyond what America would do in a similar circumstance. Israel would rather not have gone to war–but provoked into the war, it now needs to shut down the terrorist catacombs that are allowing Hamas to infiltrate Israel and kill Israelis. How exactly does she propose Israel do this? By appealing to Hamas’s sense of decency and fair play?

Ms. Albright then brought up the need for a “two-state solution.” What she didn’t say, but surely she must know, is that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians a two-state solution. Yet the Palestinian leadership has time and again refused it, in part because its goal is the elimination of the Jewish state. In addition, Gaza has been Palestinian territory for nearly a decade. There has been no Israeli presence in Gaza since 2005. Israel gave up land–and what it got in return was war.

Ms. Albright then added this:

I do think that it is very hard to watch the number of Palestinians that are being killed – innocents. It is hard to dispute the fact that, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that, in fact, there are innocents being put in the way in order to act as shields.

But the bottom line is, I think that this is hurting Israel’s moral authority. I do think it looks as though they’re overdoing, which is why I think there has to be more emphasis on the fact that they have accepted the cease-fire. And then try to figure out who has any influence over Hamas in order to get them to accept a cease-fire.

Let’s continue to untangle what Ms. Albright said, shall we?

She concedes that Hamas is responsible for using innocent Palestinians as human shields–yet somehow it’s Israel’s moral authority that is being hurt.

How on earth can it be Israel’s fault when the Israeli military is doing everything in its power to protect innocent civilians while Hamas is doing everything in its power to have them killed? Among the reasons Hamas is following this malignant strategy is for propaganda purposes, so people like Madeleine Albright will offer up witless commentary on television, shamefully turning Hamas’s war crimes into Israel’s moral failure.

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Israel, the FAA, and International Isolation

For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

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For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

Now, however, international isolation has truly arrived–not from holding territory, but from leaving it. With the suspension of American and European flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, rockets from Gaza yielded what peace processors said settlement construction would. The flight suspension by all major airlines is a major–even if temporary–economic, diplomatic, and psychological setback for Israel. It finds itself, for the moment, in same position as Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.

The subtext here is that Israel has a sword at its neck: face a private-sector no-fly zone or agree to a cease-fire that lets Hamas keep its rockets, and thus close Ben Gurion Airport again at the time of its choosing. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Yes, Israel faces international isolation–as a consequence of its attempts to avoid international isolation. Of course, nuanced thinkers are already explaining why this should not prejudice further, massive territorial withdraws from the hills immediately overlooking Ben Gurion Airport and the coastal plain.

Everyone is jittery from the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, they will say. If so, Hamas has succeeded in turning Israel into Donetsk. Moreover, the timing of the FAA’s absurd and unjustified warning seems to have more to do with Kerry’s visit to the region to impose a cease-fire on Israel. Until his administration’s flight ban, that effort seemed entirely futile.

The West Bank is vastly larger and closer to central Israel than Gaza. What Hamas could do periodically and with great difficulty will be a daily occurrence. Israel would be able to survive, but with a sword at its neck, and on terms constantly dictated by the Palestinians, and whoever is ultimately in charge of the FAA.

Indeed, the decision-making behind the FAA ban demands investigation. Ben Gurion remains an extremely safe airport. The FAA had many various measures short of a flight ban, like warnings, that it could have imposed. The FAA only warns airlines about flying to Afghanistan; it does not ban them. And the FAA move comes the day after a general State Department warning about Israel–though far more people were killed in Chicago on Fourth of July weekend than in the Jewish state since the start of the Gaza campaign.

Whatever the intent, the administration has cornered Israel in a booby-trapped tunnel, with Hamas on one side, and economic perdition on the other.

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Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

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The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

While this is ongoing, Aeroflot—Russia’s national airline—is still flying over American and European airspace. Perhaps if President Obama and European leaders really wanted to make Vladimir Putin understand how unacceptable it was to down this aircraft, it is time for U.S. and European officials to deny Aeroflot overflight rights. When Russia comes clean and Putin makes amends for the Russian militia’s actions, perhaps there can be some discussion about allowing Russian airliners to again traverse European and American airspace.

Now certainly Putin will bluster and bloviate—he does that all the time—and he may also lash out at American and European carriers. But I suspect a lot more travelers want to leave Russia than enter it. The children of Russian elite often study in the West, and their families like to visit them. And, in August, Russians–like many in Europe–like to take vacations down to the Mediterranean or Algarve, if not to Disneyland. If they have to choose Sochi instead for the next year or two, so be it.

Putin plays hardball, while Obama waves his wiffle ball bat. While Obama sees international relations as a platform upon which to compromise, Putin sees it as a zero-sum game where he wins and the weak lose. Perhaps it’s time that the White House and State Department to stop treating leverage as a dirty word, and actually start to wield it.

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Censorship vs. Accountability in Journalism

Last week, there was a bit of an uproar when NBC foreign correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who was covering Gaza for the network, was replaced with a more experienced anchor. There were concerns that Mohyeldin was being rotated out of Gaza due to his apparent sympathy for the Palestinian side. After an outcry, he was sent back to Gaza. But it’s now becoming clear that NBC had good reason to have second thoughts about putting its coverage in Mohyeldin’s hands.

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Last week, there was a bit of an uproar when NBC foreign correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who was covering Gaza for the network, was replaced with a more experienced anchor. There were concerns that Mohyeldin was being rotated out of Gaza due to his apparent sympathy for the Palestinian side. After an outcry, he was sent back to Gaza. But it’s now becoming clear that NBC had good reason to have second thoughts about putting its coverage in Mohyeldin’s hands.

CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter looked into the controversy and did a segment on it over the weekend. In an accompanying article, he explains that NBC had Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel arrive in Israel midweek and that the network was prepared for the possibility it would only have time for one broadcast, and decided to make it Engel’s. That proved to be wise call.

The day Engel arrived, Mohyeldin witnessed the attack on a Gaza beach area that killed four Palestinian children. That earned him a chance to do the segment. But NBC higher-ups were disappointed in the quality of Mohyeldin’s proposed script, and crunched for time, gave the nod to the more experienced Engel. It was a very sensitive story, and Mohyeldin had dropped the ball.

That didn’t stop complaints that Mohyeldin was being punished (or “censored,” a patently ridiculous claim) for his perceived pro-Palestinian bias. But there’s a difference between sympathy for the Palestinians and whitewashing Hamas at the expense of getting an accurate story. And now back in the region, Mohyeldin is showing why NBC was uncomfortable with his work. On a segment on Gaza with MSNBC host Chris Hayes last night, Mohyeldin was asked about the tendency of Hamas to use Palestinians in Gaza as human shields. Here was his response to Hayes:

MOHYELDIN: Well, we just put that statement, exact statement to Hamas spokesperson who’s categorically denied that Hamas or its fighters are
using the civilian population as human shields. We have not — I have not in my specific time here in Gaza, and I’ve covered three separate wars – have ever seen Hamas fighters using civilians as human shields.

But more importantly, what they say about that allegation, they categorically reject it, they deny. They say the entire world’s media is present here on the ground in Gaza. If there are any evidence, or if there are any reporters, that should be sufficient, but none of those have emerged, according to Hamas. Officials, they say there simply isn’t any documentation to suggest that Hamas uses hospitals or uses mosques or schools to store weapons.

Now, the U.N. has countered that. The U.N. has said that last week, it found 20 rockets in one U.N. facility, although that was not substantiated. That is a claim the United Nations, which oversees schools near Gaza, claims to have found.

For its part, though, Hamas denies that allegation entirely.

To put it simply: if Mohyeldin has reported from Gaza for three wars and never witnessed the use of human shields, he is failing comprehensively to do his job. This is likely what NBC saw: a reporter missing the key stories his competitors were covering to instead offer Hamas’s official explanation. Some NBC executives were very likely uncomfortable not with Mohyeldin’s supposed sympathy for Palestinian children but that he was taking a wrecking ball to NBC’s credibility.

Perhaps he was in over his head; Gaza is a tough beat. Whatever the reason, NBC had to do something. Now that they’ve returned him to Gaza, he continues chipping away at their efforts to get some accurate sense of the conflict.

It’s not as though Hamas has all the media fooled (as Mohyeldin hints). The Washington Post has been quite busy getting the story. The Algemeiner has a roundup of Post stories on the topic. They note that the Post covered the fact that Hamas was using a hospital as “a de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders,” and that the Post ran stories detailing the use of mosques to store rockets. In one story, the Post reporter witnessed Hamas fighters moving rockets into a mosque during a temporary cease-fire. It’s also a bit baffling that Mohyeldin played down the rockets discovered in a UN school, when other press followed the progress of those rockets being returned to (Hamas-linked) Palestinian officials.

To be fair, Mohyeldin isn’t alone. The New York Times’s Anne Barnard complained on Twitter this morning that criticism of her one-sided coverage isn’t fair because it’s too dangerous to cover Hamas accurately. I sympathize, and admire reporters for putting themselves in harm’s way for their job. But it’s all the more reason to salute the reporters who are doing so while actually getting the story.

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Open Primaries

It is a rare day when I find myself in agreement with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. After all, he is a prime mover behind the attempt, by constitutional amendment, to gut the First Amendment when it comes to political speech. The text is quite lengthy, at least by constitutional amendment standards, but it could effectively be put into a single sentence, “The power of Congress to enact incumbent protection legislation shall not be limited.”

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It is a rare day when I find myself in agreement with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. After all, he is a prime mover behind the attempt, by constitutional amendment, to gut the First Amendment when it comes to political speech. The text is quite lengthy, at least by constitutional amendment standards, but it could effectively be put into a single sentence, “The power of Congress to enact incumbent protection legislation shall not be limited.”

But Senator Schumer has come out in today’s New York Times in favor of open primaries. That is a very good idea. He points out that the center of American politics is nearly empty these days as the parties have become much more ideologically and much less geographically based. Combine that with gerrymandering, and it is more and more the primary elections that determine who eventually wins the seat up for grabs.

But most states have party primaries, where only registered party members can vote. With parties more ideological than ever, it is the true believers, usually at the left or right extreme of each party, who turn out for these primary elections. That forces politicians to move to the left or right in order to win the primary, or avoid having to run in one at all. “Primary” has long been a noun and an adjective; it has now become a verb as well, as in “We will primary him if he doesn’t support … .”

Party primaries, of course, also disenfranchise those registered as independents, now about one-third of the American electorate.

Schumer advocates a system where there are no party primaries, only a single primary, open to all who qualify regardless of party. If one candidate wins a majority of the vote, he’s elected. If no one gets a majority, then the top two vote getters run in the general election.

Open primaries enfranchise independents (centrists almost be definition) as well as greatly reducing the influence of the political extremes. They would help to restore the power of the center in American politics, where successful public policy almost always originates. (Just consider the ObamaCare disaster, wholly a product of the left.)

This system began in Louisiana (to be sure, not a state exactly famous for its enlightened or squeaky-clean politics) in the 1970s. In 2010 it was adopted by referendum in California and, according to Senator Schumer, “The move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern.” Washington State has had open primaries since 2008 and Colorado and Oregon will consider them this year.

It would seem that the idea is spreading, as good ideas always do. For the sake of American politics I hope it spreads far and fast.

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Israeli Restraint Also Comes at a Price

Ever since Israel began its latest Gaza operation in an effort to stop the rocket fire directed against its civilians, calls for Israel to “show restraint” have become a mantra for both the Obama administration and the international community at large. Quite what would constitute both a “restrained” and an effective response goes completely unspecified by those making these calls. Failing any useful suggestions from the outside, Israel’s current strategy has actually shown a great deal of restraint in its effort to balance meeting military objectives with attempting to avoid civilians. So restrained, in fact, that it has inevitably placed limits on Israel’s ability to definitively prevent either rockets or the infiltration of terrorists by sea and tunnel. And this restraint comes with another still greater price for Israelis, a price that is being paid by the young men of Israel’s armed forces.

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Ever since Israel began its latest Gaza operation in an effort to stop the rocket fire directed against its civilians, calls for Israel to “show restraint” have become a mantra for both the Obama administration and the international community at large. Quite what would constitute both a “restrained” and an effective response goes completely unspecified by those making these calls. Failing any useful suggestions from the outside, Israel’s current strategy has actually shown a great deal of restraint in its effort to balance meeting military objectives with attempting to avoid civilians. So restrained, in fact, that it has inevitably placed limits on Israel’s ability to definitively prevent either rockets or the infiltration of terrorists by sea and tunnel. And this restraint comes with another still greater price for Israelis, a price that is being paid by the young men of Israel’s armed forces.

“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation! It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation!” an exasperated John Kerry was caught saying over an open mic this weekend. But the Secretary of State knows full well from America’s own military operations just how difficult it is to target guerrilla fighters operating in urban areas without also endangering civilians. What more is it that Kerry thinks Israel should be doing? Should Israel be dropping more warning leaflets and making more phone calls encouraging Gazans to flee the conflict zone? Should Israel be making more last-minute cancellations of strikes when it becomes apparent that civilians might be in the line of fire? Should Israel simply rule out altogether any target that Hamas has embedded in an urban area no matter how crucial hitting it is for stopping Hamas’s terror activities? It is meaningless for outsiders to talk of Israel’s right to defend its people in theory, only to then lambaste Israel’s every effort to do so in practice.

During Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead similar measures were taken to avoid civilian casualties and yet the use of airstrikes was evidently much heavier. This had two results. The first was that casualty figures among Gazans were significantly higher than has so far been the case this time around. And the second was that when the IDF undertook its ground operation in Gaza the number of Israeli soldiers killed by Palestinian militants was limited to six. This time, just a few days into the ground operation, the IDF casualty figure stands at twenty-eight. This is in part because Hamas is now armed with far more advanced (Iranian supplied) weaponry than ever before, as seen with its use of anti-tank mortars. Yet when it comes to fighting in such densely built-up areas as Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, the Israelis have an impossibly difficult calculus to make between risking a greater loss of civilian life by using heavier airpower, or carrying out fewer airstrikes and putting Israeli troops in considerably greater danger.

This was the same moral conundrum that Israel faced in Jenin in 2002 during the Second Intifada. Israel could have spared losses on its own side by using heavy shelling of the areas militants were operating within. Yet the Israeli army prioritized sparing civilian lives and obliged its men to undergo the nightmare of house-to-house combat against the jihadists. They faced ambushes and booby-trapped buildings. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers lost their lives and seventy were wounded. Despite this concerted effort to show full regard for the highest humanitarian principles, Israel was defamed and accused of carrying out a massacre that under later investigation turned out to be a total fiction.

During the course of the current ground operation in Gaza, Israel has brought injured Islamist militants to Israel for medical treatment and has now established a field hospital for Palestinians in Gaza itself. In recent weeks Israel has agreed to every humanitarian cease-fire requested, always in the knowledge that it won’t be upheld by the other side. To suggest that Israel has some malicious disregard for civilian life, to suggest that it is perhaps “accidentally-on-purpose” choosing to kill a few extra Gazans here and there, is simply obscene. If Israel had some means of sparing every civilian and only striking combatants, do the John Kerrys of this world seriously imagine that they would withhold it? Yet some of Israel’s critics seem to operate under the impression that Israelis have almost magical powers in warfare and that, if only the mood took them, they could defeat Hamas without causing any significant harm to the surrounding population.

Under the circumstances Israel shows incredible restraint. The result is that it cannot stop the rockets or the terror tunnels by airstrikes alone. Instead it has to send in its young men. And because the Israelis insist on showing a concern for Gazan civilians—the like of which is an utter anathema to Hamas—they also withhold the kind of shelling that would make the work of their ground troops much easier. That comes at a most terrible price for the Israeli soldiers and their families.

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The End of the Liberal Critique of Israel

After several days of personally observing the people of Israel reacting to rocket attacks and the grim reality of the fight against Hamas in Gaza, the irrelevance of most of the things the country’s American critics say about it has never seemed more obvious to me. After being forced into a war that the overwhelming majority of people here understand is one about their survival and not the political issues that divide Jews, it’s little wonder that most Israelis pay little attention to their country’s foreign detractors who seek to save them from themselves. People who claim to care about the Jewish state need to draw similar conclusions.

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After several days of personally observing the people of Israel reacting to rocket attacks and the grim reality of the fight against Hamas in Gaza, the irrelevance of most of the things the country’s American critics say about it has never seemed more obvious to me. After being forced into a war that the overwhelming majority of people here understand is one about their survival and not the political issues that divide Jews, it’s little wonder that most Israelis pay little attention to their country’s foreign detractors who seek to save them from themselves. People who claim to care about the Jewish state need to draw similar conclusions.

The contrast between the support for the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to attack Hamas’s rocket launchers and terrorist tunnel network in Gaza that is exhibited by most Israelis and the outrage that these efforts at self-defense have generated elsewhere is hard to ignore. Israelis understand the current conflict has nothing to do with arguments about settlements or borders. You don’t have to be a supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or those of pro-settlement critics on the right here to understand that Hamas and its sympathizers don’t care where Israel’s borders should be drawn. Nor is there any real debate about the impact of a Palestinian political culture in which even the supposed moderates applaud terrorism and treat those who slaughter Jews as heroes. The point of the terrorist fortress in Gaza that the Israel Defense Forces is trying to disarm if not dismantle is to serve as the base for an ongoing war against the existence of the Jewish state. The choice of Hamas’s leaders to deliberately sacrifice as many of their own people as possible in order to protect their terrorist infrastructure has not been lost on Israelis. Nor has it escaped their notice that the whole point of the massive investment in rockets and infiltration tunnels by the government of a district mired in poverty is to produce as many Jewish casualties as possible regardless of the impact such actions may have on the safety or the quality of life of Palestinians.

Just as important is the ugly anti-Semitic tone of much of the protests that have been mounted against Israel’s counter-attacks against Hamas in Gaza. Simply put, much of the world seems to think that Hamas has a “right” to shoot thousands of rockets at Israeli cities or to launch cross-border terror raids aimed at kidnapping or killing as many Jews as possible and that the Jewish state has no right to defend itself against these actions–even if they go to great lengths (as the Israel Defense Forces do as a matter of course) to avoid hurting the civilians that the Islamists use as human shields. The general invective against Zionism being heard on the streets of Europe’s cities and even in the U.S. protests against Israel is of a piece with the tone of Hamas’s talking points. The solidarity these demonstrators are expressing for the “resistance” against the “occupation”–a term by which they mean all of Israel and not just the West Bank or the Hamas-run independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza–also makes plain the nature of the struggle. Even those who support a two-state solution that would entail an Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the West Bank must now comprehend that their dislike of the settlements or the desire to satisfy the Palestinian ambition for sovereignty can’t ignore the fact that the debate about these ideas is entirely moot while the rockets are flying and terrorists are tunneling beneath the border in hope of emerging inside Israel to slaughter innocents. In this context of hate and violence, the only real points of contention are whether you support the survival of the Jewish state or not.

That is why the energy expended by so many American liberals on behalf of projects designed to pressure Israel’s government to make more concessions to the Palestinians is not merely wrongheaded. It’s utterly irrelevant to the realities of both the Middle East and the global resurgence of anti-Semitism. Groups such as J Street that are predicated on the notion that Israel must be saved from itself by principled liberal critics are treated as both serious and representative of Jewish opinion by the mainstream media. But that group has little to say about the current conflict that requires our notice. Nor are its efforts to distinguish itself from far more radical anti-Zionist groups that openly support efforts to isolate Israel economically and support protests against its right of self defense of any importance any longer.

At this moment it is no longer possible to pretend that the conflict can be wished away by Israeli concessions that would, if implemented, create another 20 Gazas in the West Bank. Nor can one rationally argue that more Israeli forbearance toward Hamas in Gaza and a less vigorous effort to take out its vast system of tunnels shielding its rocket arsenal and terror shock troops would bring the region closer to peace when the only way to give that cause a chance is predicated on the elimination of Hamas.

If, at some point in the indefinite future, the Palestinians turn on Hamas and its less radical allies and embrace a national identity that is not inextricably linked to Israel’s elimination, perhaps then we can resume the debate about settlements and borders that J Street craves. But until that unlikely event happens, it is imperative that Americans realize that the J Street critique of Israel that is often echoed by some in the Obama administration and throughout the left is over. The only question to be asked today is whether you stand with Israel’s right to defend itself or not. Jews and others who consider themselves friends of the Jewish state must find the courage to speak up for the justice of Israel’s cause in the current crisis against the forces of hate. Viewed from the perspective of the last week’s events here in Israel, anything else is a waste of time.

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A Stubborn Status Quo in Gaza

It’s been a rough few days for both Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Some 25 Israeli soldiers and more than 500 Palestinians have been killed in fighting. The loss of life on both sides is deplorable. But the fact that many more Palestinians than Israelis have died–that the death toll has been, to use the buzz phrase, “disproportionate”–does not mean that the Israelis are the aggressors and the Palestinians the victims.

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It’s been a rough few days for both Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Some 25 Israeli soldiers and more than 500 Palestinians have been killed in fighting. The loss of life on both sides is deplorable. But the fact that many more Palestinians than Israelis have died–that the death toll has been, to use the buzz phrase, “disproportionate”–does not mean that the Israelis are the aggressors and the Palestinians the victims.

In a sense both sides are the victims of Hamas’s leaders who refuse to recognize Israel’s existence or to give up their armed struggle against it. If only the Hamas leaders had done what normal democratic politicians would have done when Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005: which is to say, if only they had focused on economic development, then none of this would have happened. Israel would have happily cooperated in boosting living conditions in Gaza; it only instituted a blockade on Gaza, with exceptions for humanitarian supplies, when it became clear that it was becoming an armed base for an attack on Israel. In fact wealthy Jewish donors even gave the Palestinians 3,000 greenhouses left behind by settlers. But instead of growing flowers, Hamas prefers to harvest hatred. The greenhouses were looted and covert rocket factories were constructed.

So for the third time since 2005 a war is raging in Gaza–one brought about directly by Hamas’s insistence on attacking Israel. No nation in the world would tolerate hundreds of rockets raining down on its territory. Because Israel was not able to stop the barrage through the use of precision airpower alone, it has now sent its soldiers into harm’s way.

Predictably, Israeli casualties have been going up as their troops have been battling through the dense urban warrens of Gaza City–restrictive terrain that to some extent obviates the firepower advantage of the IDF and allows Hamas ambushers to inflict real damage on Israeli troops. On Sunday, for example, a Hamas anti-tank missile apparently took out an antiquated armored personnel carrier, killing seven soldiers from the elite Golani Brigade. But Israeli forces still have the initiative and are working on destroy tunnels built by Hamas not only to infiltrate military supplies into Gaza but also to infiltrate its fighters into Israel.

Naturally the “international community” is eager to stop the war as soon as possible and is putting pressure on both sides to reach a cease-fire agreement. (If only there were as much pressure being applied to Bashar Assad whose war has killed upwards of 170,000 Muslims.) Few seem to remember Israel had already offered a cease-fire before the ground war started. Hamas refused, no doubt because it has been losing popularity and sees a war against the “Zionist entity” as a good way to enhance its prestige among Palestinians and the Arab world more generally. But sooner or later, as in the past, Hamas is certain to agree to a cease-fire.

What then? Essentially we will see a return to the prewar status quo. That is to say, an uneasy peace, with Hamas trying to smuggle in more weapons and Israel watching warily, both sides preparing for a resumption of hostilities. There is no victory likely for either side. The best that Israel can hope for is to manage the problem because, as I have pointed out before, the only way to eradicate Hamas is through an occupation, which Israel does not want to undertake.

The second-best solution might be to have the Palestinian Authority, which is more moderate than Hamas and after all is supposed to be nominally in charge of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, assert its actual authority in Gaza. Yet, surprisingly, there does not seem to be much discussion of this option. That may well be a tribute to Hamas’s success–little discussed but hugely significant–in knee-capping Fatah’s infrastructure in Gaza, sometimes literally. Hamas has waged a ruthless behind-the-scenes battle to consolidate authority in Gaza at the expense of Fatah.

That seems to leave Hamas as the only game in town for the time being, barring even more radical Salafists. So the odds are heavy that Hamas will remain in charge after Israel’s operation ends–and Palestinians will continue to pay the price for its extremism time and again.

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An Academic’s Admirable Intellectual Independence

I wanted to alert people to recent congressional testimony by George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley. The subject was the lawsuit by Speaker John Boehner to check President Obama’s repeated violations of the separation of powers. “The president’s pledge to effectively govern alone is alarming,” according to Turley, “and what is most alarming is his ability to fulfill that pledge.”

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I wanted to alert people to recent congressional testimony by George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley. The subject was the lawsuit by Speaker John Boehner to check President Obama’s repeated violations of the separation of powers. “The president’s pledge to effectively govern alone is alarming,” according to Turley, “and what is most alarming is his ability to fulfill that pledge.”

I want to focus on Professor Turley’s testimony for two reasons. The first has to do with the merits of his argument, which he believes reflects the vision of the founders. The push-and-pull between Congress and the presidency goes back to the very beginning of the republic, but according to Turley we have reached a “tipping point.” Even if one doesn’t fully agree with him, Turley’s case is worth considering, particularly given how well-stated it is.

The second reason I wanted to highlight what Professor Turley said is because he demonstrates impressive intellectual independence. In the course of his testimony, Professor Turley says quite forthrightly that he voted for Barack Obama in the past and he’s sympathetic to what the president is trying to achieve with the Affordable Care Act. Which is to say, Turley is a political liberal.

No matter. The George Washington University law professor is able to separate his political leanings from his analysis of the situation. He is able to argue “against interest.” His principles have deeper roots than his political/partisan views.

Professor Turley is obviously a serious-minded scholar; he’s also a civilized, irenic one. We all struggle with “confirmation bias” and “motivated reasoning”; with keeping our political biases from clouding our intellectual judgments. These days that’s truer of academics, I imagine, than most others. Which is why Jonathan Turley’s example is an estimable one. Watch his testimony and see if you agree.

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Israel, Hamas, and Moral Idiocy

In our politics today we often turn our disagreement into Manichean struggles, as if one side has all the arguments in its favor while the other has none. In fact, it’s not unusual for both sides to have at least a kernel of truth. That doesn’t mean, of course, that both sides hold equally valid positions; but it does mean that there are usually legitimate, competing claims to arbitrate.

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In our politics today we often turn our disagreement into Manichean struggles, as if one side has all the arguments in its favor while the other has none. In fact, it’s not unusual for both sides to have at least a kernel of truth. That doesn’t mean, of course, that both sides hold equally valid positions; but it does mean that there are usually legitimate, competing claims to arbitrate.

Abraham Lincoln got at this better than anyone when he said, “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”

But note the qualifier: “Almost everything.” From time to time there are situations in which the political and moral arguments are completely with one side and not the other. Such is the case with the war between Israel and Hamas.

Start with the two protagonists: on the one side, a nation of incredible intellectual, political, and moral achievements that has made more sacrifices for peace than any country on earth. On the other, an Islamic terrorist organization that ranks among the most vicious in the world and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and Jews everywhere. (The Hamas propaganda slogan declares, “We love death more than the Jews love life.”)

As for the particulars of this current conflict, we face a situation in which Israel wants peace and Hamas wants war (and indeed started this war); in which Israel has accepted several cease-fires and Hamas none; in which Israel is bending over
 backwards to prevent civilian Palestinian deaths while Hamas bends over backwards to increase civilian Palestinian deaths.

These facts are not in dispute. Neither is this: Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, granting the Palestinians what they said they wanted: self-rule. In the process, Israel destroyed thousands of homes and public buildings owned by Jewish settlers who had lived in Gaza since Israel won the land in the 1967 war. Israeli troops even stormed the synagogue in Kfar Darom in order to remove Israeli settlers who did not want to leave. And what did Israel get in return for its unilateral withdrawal? Not an independent Palestinian state but a terrorist one that, among other things, has launched rocket attacks at the three largest cities in Israel (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa).

Yet despite all this, much of the world, including many Europeans, blame not Hamas but Israel. In dozens of European cities, including Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Amsterdam, “thousands of demonstrators thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters have depicted Israel as the aggressor and sought to isolate it internationally.” This is a grotesque distortion of reality.

In America, thank goodness, things aren’t nearly so bad. Still, it comes as a surprise to exactly no one that the Obama administration, while saying Israel has the right to self-defense, is continually applying pressure against the Jewish state for exercising that right. Team Obama’s frustration with Israel is palpable (see this clip from Secretary Kerry mocking Israel when he thought his conversation was private). We’re told the president, for example, has “serious concern about the growing number of casualties, including increasing Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza.” So do many of us. It is heartbreaking to witness. But the pressure should be applied not to Israel but Hamas, which started this war, which is attempting to escalate it, and which is using innocent Palestinians as human shields. Yet we get from this administration a kind of rough moral symmetry in which Israel is lectured to exercise restraint beyond anything we would ask of ourselves and in which both Israel and Hamas are said to be complicit in a non-stop “cycle of violence.”

This is moral idiocy. The proper response to this conflict is to stand four-square with Israel in its effort to decimate Hamas. That would be the right thing to do in every respect, including for the welfare of Palestinian children, who are merely pawns in the lethal game being played by Hamas.

To portray Hamas sympathetically and Israel as villainous is not simply irrational. It requires one to step through the looking glass, to hate the good and embrace the malevolent, and in doing so to enter a world characterized by at best moral confusion and at worst moral corruption.

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Smash the Regulatory State from Within

The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

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The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

With all the talk of reform conservatism, this is a more limited variant of the ambitious reform efforts gaining momentum. There are two categories of such reform, and the abuse-of-power scandals proliferating throughout the Obama administration’s bureaucratic power agencies make it all the more necessary to realize the opportunity they present to conservatives seeking to protect the public from big government.

The first has to do with regulations, and Texas presents a good example. Because so much of the Obama-era Democratic regulations are poorly thought-out and destructive, it’s easy to get the impression that when the government regulates something, it will do so in a deeply stupid way. But it doesn’t have to.

In April 2010, the Washington Post ran an interesting article investigating the following question: Why did Texas escape the real-estate bust? As the Post explained:

Texas’s 3.1 million mortgage borrowers are a breed of their own among big states with big cities. Fewer than 6 percent of them are in or near foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association; the national average is nearly 10 percent. …

Texan subprime borrowers do especially well compared with their counterparts elsewhere. The foreclosure rate among subprime borrowers in Texas, at less than 19 percent, is the lowest of any state except Alaska.

Part of the answer seemed to be restrictions on refinancing and home-equity lending:

A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans cannot total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even a dollar back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date from the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans.

It turns out such restrictions went a long way toward preventing homeowners from taking out the kind of loans and refinancing that increased the chances of default when the bubble burst, protecting many in Texas from suffering the same fate. It’s the kind of “smart” regulation that not only benefits the private sector but also can prevent future “dumb” regulations: the less prone to such crises states (and especially the federal government) are, the less demand there will be for the kind of “do-something” regulatory pile-ons and bailouts that follow those crises.

Texas is also, of course, a testament to the benefits of limited regulations in other areas of ownership and private property. Another part of the state’s insulation from the real-estate bubble was, as Wendell Cox explained, “the state’s liberal, market oriented land use policies. This served to help keep the price of land low while profligate lending increased demand.” Overregulated housing markets inflated prices and restricted supply. Texas got the balance just right.

So there’s “smart” regulations vs. “dumb” regulations. But the other category of this kind of reform has to do with the bureaucracy. Especially in the Obama era, policy is being made more and more by unelected bureaucrats. As the IRS scandal (and others) showed, the power and insulation from the public eye is a dangerous combination.

Conservatives have generally approached this by concentrating on the need to eliminate either bureaucratic agencies or the powers of those agencies. They should also, however, keep in mind that as long as those agencies exist, personnel is policy. Perhaps no one on the right has internalized this message more than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a piece for National Review last year (still paywalled, alas), Daniel Foster wrote about McConnell’s attitude toward staffing decisions made by each party. When bureaucratic commission openings must be filled, it generally falls to the leadership. That means President Obama for the Democrats and McConnell for the Republicans. The Democrats still tend to view such job appointments as patronage positions. But McConnell has rejected the cronyism in favor of competence:

To translate his instincts into names, he brought in GOP veteran Dan Schneider. To look at Schneider’s government rap sheet — stints at the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Labor Department — you’d think he was a die-cast liberal. But when I spoke with him for this story, he said he likes to think of himself as a loyal conservative sent behind enemy lines “to monitor the radicals.”

Schneider came onto McConnell’s radar via the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao. When George W. Bush appointed Chao to head his Department of Labor, Schneider became her first White House liaison, and she gave him free rein to find conservatives to fill more than 200 slots inside the department. He impressed, and, after the Obama transition, migrated into McConnell’s office, where he oversees a sort of national conservative talent search with the title “Policy Advisor and Counsel for Nominations.”

Schneider operates according to a set of five criteria for screening potential nominees first developed by E. Pendleton “Pen” James, Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel management. First, were the nominees competent in the subject matter? Second, were they philosophically compatible with Senator McConnell? Third, did they possess high character and integrity? Fourth, were they tough? Fifth, were they team players?

The result, two or three hundred appointees later, is measurable.

Of course the ultimate aim for such bureaucracies should be to get rid of them or limit their power–something McConnell also engages in, as when he spearheaded the challenge to Obama’s unconstitutional recess appointments, which resulted recently in a unanimous Supreme Court rejection of Obama’s power grab.

But conservatives can fight those fights while engaging in limited reform from within the regulatory state. They don’t have to cede ground just because they wish that ground didn’t exist.

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Lessons from the Failed Peace Process

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

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There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

The second conclusion is that the way the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, blew up the talks bodes ill for any future peace process:

Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT. The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.

It’s one thing to threaten action, set a deadline, and then carry it out. That is essentially what the Palestinians did with their UN gambit. But the idea that the process could just end on a Palestinian whim can poison the well (or whatever’s left of it).

That’s because for the Palestinians, once the process begins it’s in the hands of Abbas, Erekat, and some high-level members of Abbas’s cabinet. That is not the case for Israel. As the report details, the day the Palestinians signed their applications to the UN agencies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding meetings throughout the day in his office seeking to reassure skeptics in his coalition without alienating Livni and the peace processors to their left. Additionally, he had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party that held the third-most seats in the governing coalition.

The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was an unmitigated disaster for the peace process. It was more than just a setback: it raised the possibility that any Israeli leader who risked his government for a peace process would get a more terroristic Palestinian government than he or she started with and would have imminent war looming. The Palestinians are willing to pull the plug without warning. That’s a lesson their Israeli and American counterparts will learn.

And it is related to the third conclusion to be drawn from the essay. The authors relate a conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu raises the issue of Palestinian incitement. Eventually, the following exchange occurs:

Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”

“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”

That comment may paint Netanyahu as defensive, but in fact he’s right–and the essay demonstrates that convincingly. Kerry and his negotiating team, as well as the Palestinian leadership, consistently misread the Israeli political scene and Netanyahu’s reaction to it. Autocrats don’t seem to understand democratic politics, and Kerry’s team exhibited no real grasp of what it takes to form a consensus and keep a government intact in Israel.

The reporters themselves even got tripped up by Israeli politics and leaned heavily on trite and completely inaccurate narratives. At one point in the article, they refer to Netanyahu as “a right-wing ideologue”–an absurdly reductionist and patently false claim. If Netanyahu, the famous dealmaker and pragmatist who elicits much Israeli wariness precisely because he is not an ideologue, can be classified as such, then everybody and nobody is an “ideologue.”

Elsewhere in the piece we are told, indefensibly, that “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud.” This is a common, but no less justifiable, trope. It is a sign either that the writer can only understand politics through shallow American analogies or that the writer assumes that to be true of the reader. Or both, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the “Tea Party” contention is obviously untrue, and those who offer it with regard to Israeli politics are doing their readers a considerable disservice.

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From Lydda to Gaza

“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

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“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

I won’t keep you in suspense. It was Israeli historian Benny Morris, replying to my critique (at Mosaic Magazine) of Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” of July 12, 1948, in Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Shavit declined to respond to me, but Morris took up the gauntlet last week. He wishes a pox on Shavit’s house and mine, for different reasons. He accuses Shavit of turning Lydda into more than it was, and he accuses me of “effectively denying” that there was “a massacre, albeit a provoked one.” Perhaps I do, although (unlike Shavit and Morris) I don’t claim to know exactly what happened.

I hadn’t set out to contest both Shavit and Morris, but since Shavit relies on Morris, their narratives are intertwined, and it’s just as well. Mosaic Magazine today runs my reply to Morris’s response. Not only do I question the credibility of his historical account, I also make this more general observation:

On Morris’s principle, every occasion on which Israel exacts a numerically “disproportionate” cost in the lives of others—as it often must do, if it is to deter and defeat its enemies—constitutes evidence of massacre; to sustain its very existence, Israel must massacre again and again, decade after decade…. Israel thus can never be legitimate; it is a perpetual war crime, on an ever-larger scale. So saith the “disproportion.”

Unfortunately, it’s a question that’s timely, on the morrow of a day when Israel lost thirteen soldiers in battle, and Palestinians are again claiming that Israel has committed a “massacre.” Read my response to Morris here.

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Europe Confronts its Anti-Israel Extremists

For the second weekend running European cities witnessed a surge of hateful, and in places violent, anti-Israel protests. With the temper of these gatherings becoming so alarmingly extreme, European governments may now be waking up to a problem that has been festering in parts of their societies for quite some time. Yet as they attempt to make sense of this growing source of public disorder, one wonders whether Europe’s political elites will reflect upon their own role in manufacturing this fiercely anti-Israel atmosphere.

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For the second weekend running European cities witnessed a surge of hateful, and in places violent, anti-Israel protests. With the temper of these gatherings becoming so alarmingly extreme, European governments may now be waking up to a problem that has been festering in parts of their societies for quite some time. Yet as they attempt to make sense of this growing source of public disorder, one wonders whether Europe’s political elites will reflect upon their own role in manufacturing this fiercely anti-Israel atmosphere.

Some of the most shocking scenes happened in Paris, where two synagogues came under attack, resulting in street fighting between anti-Israel activists and Jewish youths. In an effort to prevent a repeat of this mayhem the authorities took the unprecedented decision of prohibiting any pro-Palestinian demonstrations planned for the following weekend. While such a move is certainly a measure of just how serious the French government is about combating this malady, it is equally a sign of how insurmountable a problem has become when a government is reduced to simply reaching for the “outlaw” option. It is indeed a concerning state of affairs for any democracy to be forced into taking such drastic action as the last resort for ensuring public safety.

Of course, in reality such moves are by their nature bound to backfire. They inevitably add to the existing sense of outrage and convince others that there is a conspiracy seeking to silence dissenters. As a result the events in Paris this weekend were still more violent than those seen the week before. Rioters set fire to cars, looted Jewish-owned stores, and hurled a Molotov cocktail at another synagogue, while violent clashes left a dozen police injured. Many of those involved in these disturbances came from France’s sizable Muslim minority, and so some might consider it understandable that these demonstrators should feel a deep sense of solidarity with Muslims suffering in Gaza. Yet their fellow Sunni Muslim brothers have been cut down in vastly greater numbers, and in far more brutal ways, by Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria and by rival Shia insurgents in Iraq, both of course backed by Iran. It simply cannot be ignored that these events did not draw anything like the same reaction.

That observation holds true for those marching the streets of London. On Sunday, during a rally held in support of Israel, it was reported that a man had to receive treatment from paramedics after being assaulted by pro-Palestinian activists. Indeed, in recent weeks anti-Semitic incidents in Britain are said to have doubled. This is the inevitable fallout from the kind of incitement prevalent at the rallies being held for Gaza. At Saturday’s the crowed was thick with placards that bore the Star of David alongside the swastika, that referred to the “Holocaust” in Gaza, and that carried such messages as: “well done Israel, Hitler would be proud.” The crowd enthusiastically chanted what has now become the movement’s favorite rallying cry: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a call for the total extinction of the State of Israel between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

With an estimated 15,000 attendees, the numbers were significantly reduced from the turnouts seen in London during Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead. As several commentators have now observed, the demographic at these marches has shifted to being predominantly Muslim, many conservatively dressed, with a sprinkling of the far-left and the high minded thrown in. And the atmosphere seemed uglier than ever before. There were scuffles with the police, the Israeli embassy had to be barricaded, and organizers and guest speakers whipped the crowed into a frenzy by bellowing down the microphone about Israel being an illegal/racist/apartheid/terror state. Still, none of this was quite as distasteful as the stunt pulled at another rally held in London earlier in the week, when protesters brought along children smeared with red paint–a modern-day blood libel if ever there was one.

All of this was just a few notches down from events in Paris and could quickly escalate to comparable levels of anarchy. But the truth is that both the British and French governments have fostered the attitudes that breed such extreme outbursts. The French government has been at the forefront of European efforts to single out Israel’s settlement policy as a uniquely unspeakable crime, and likewise the British government has upheld the narrative that it is Israel’s settlement policy that has sabotaged peace efforts. And when the Commons came to debate the situation in Gaza earlier this week, most parliamentarians began by condemning Hamas rockets before swiftly justifying them as a kind of forgivable response to wicked Israel’s settlement building, a curious position given that the rockets are coming out of Gaza, from which all of Israel’s settlements were removed in 2005. But then this is the prevailing wisdom and indeed the line pushed by the BBC and Agence France-Presse, both state owned, of course.

European governments rightly pour scorn on the rising flames of anti-Semitism that are erupting out of the continent’s anti-Israel fringe, but at what point do these same politicians face up to their own role in fanning these flames and legitimizing the extreme views that give rise to them?

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Why Should Denial of Access to MH17 Matter?

In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

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In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

The fighters in Donetsk are to Russia what Hezbollah is to Iran. Rather than give the Kremlin an out for the actions of anyone under separatist leader Igor Girkin who, according to press reports, was a member of the KGB-successor agency the FSB until last year, the proper response would be to acknowledge that the buck stops with Vladimir Putin. If Putin did not want to risk such accountability, then he shouldn’t tolerate, channel, or use men such as Girkin to advance Russian policy.

Nor should there be such handwringing over the denial of access to investigators seeking to investigate the wreckage. Would it be better if such investigations occurred unimpeded? Sure. But rather than allow Russia and its proxies to avoid accountability by undercutting the investigation into the murder of all those onboard MH17, the United States, Europe, and Malaysia should simply declare that Girkin and Putin will be considered guilty unless there is immediate access to the crash scene. To worry about access highlights one more reason why terrorism—and, make no mistake, this was an act of terror—should be considered a military matter and not a judicial issue to be subject to judicial standards of evidence. Even for those who favor process over justice and who are prone to see the shoot-down through the lens of criminality, then perhaps a better analogy would be to consider the case of a suspected drunk driver who refuses a Breathalyzer test. No policeman or court would agree that refusal to take the breath test would mandate a not-guilty verdict to drunk driving.

It’s understandable that air disaster investigators want as clean a process as possible to their investigation. But if that is not possible for geopolitical reasons, then rather than allow Russia to avoid accountability, it is time to respond—economically against Russia and perhaps with unilateral action against the Donestk commanders without any further delay. After all, only the guilty would impede the investigation, so such impediment should be taken for what it is—an admission of guilt.

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Former PA Official: Firing Rockets at Israel ‘Restores Our Human Dignity’

To truly understand the current fighting in Gaza, it’s important to listen to Jamal Zakout. Zakout, a secular resident of Ramallah, is no fan of Hamas, as Amira Hass noted in her report in Haaretz last week (Hebrew only): He has held various positions in the Palestinian Authority, including spokesman for former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, took part in the Geneva Initiative (a nongovernmental effort to draft an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement), and opposed the “militarization” of the second intifada. Nevertheless, Hass writes, the fighting is bolstering Hamas’s status even among Palestinians like him, because “when Hamas manages, despite everything, to continue launching missiles at Israel and disrupting normal life there, Zakout says this restores their feeling of human dignity.”

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To truly understand the current fighting in Gaza, it’s important to listen to Jamal Zakout. Zakout, a secular resident of Ramallah, is no fan of Hamas, as Amira Hass noted in her report in Haaretz last week (Hebrew only): He has held various positions in the Palestinian Authority, including spokesman for former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, took part in the Geneva Initiative (a nongovernmental effort to draft an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement), and opposed the “militarization” of the second intifada. Nevertheless, Hass writes, the fighting is bolstering Hamas’s status even among Palestinians like him, because “when Hamas manages, despite everything, to continue launching missiles at Israel and disrupting normal life there, Zakout says this restores their feeling of human dignity.”

This, in a nutshell, is why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains unsolvable, and why it produces spasms of violence with monotonous regularity: For too many Palestinians, including “moderates” like Zakout, “human dignity” derives from hurting Israelis–even knowing full well that the resultant Israeli counterstrikes will cause far greater harm to Palestinians.

This is something you would simply never hear an Israeli say, because Israelis see human dignity as stemming from saving life, not taking it. This doesn’t mean they oppose using military force in self-defense. Indeed, they overwhelmingly support the current operation: After absorbing 13,000 rockets from Gaza over the last nine years, they want the rockets stopped; they want children in the south to be able to grow up normally, instead having 45 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to constant rocket fire, and they want people all over Israel to be able to lead their lives without disruption. But they would never say that dropping bombs on Gaza enhances their “human dignity”; they view war as an unpleasant necessity which they would much rather not have to engage in.

This difference in Palestinian and Israeli attitudes is epitomized by two technological developments that have become the darlings of their respective peoples: the Iron Dome anti-missile system and the M-75 rocket.

The M-75 is a technological marvel–a homemade medium-range rocket capable of striking Tel Aviv, developed despite stringent Israeli import restrictions aimed at preventing Hamas from doing just that. It’s a purely offensive weapon with no defensive purpose, and Palestinians love it. An enterprising Gaza merchant even named a perfume after it two years ago, when it was first deployed, and Reuters reported that sales promptly soared.

Iron Dome is also a homegrown technological marvel. But it’s the M-75’s mirror image: a purely defensive weapon with no offensive purpose. And that’s precisely why Israelis love it: Its purpose is to save lives rather than take them.

It’s not that Israel lacks homegrown, technologically marvelous offensive weapons. But while killing people who seek to kill you is sometimes necessary for self-defense, and most Israelis have no qualms about employing offensive weapons for that purpose, they would never love them. They view taking life as an unpleasant necessity that they would much rather be spared.

Palestinians, to be fair, have no defensive weaponry to love; they don’t even have basic civil-defense measures such as shelters. But that, as Jonathan Tobin wrote last week, is because Hamas deliberately opted to invest all its efforts in offensive capabilities rather than measures to protect its own people. It prefers taking Israeli lives to saving Palestinian ones. And this preference has only bolstered Hamas’s popularity.

This seeming anomaly is explained by Zakout’s insight: To many Palestinians, human dignity comes not from bettering their own lives, but from worsening Israelis’ lives. Or as a Hamas parliamentarian succinctly put it, “We desire Death, as you desire Life.”

And as long as Palestinians derive their sense of human dignity from killing Israelis, peace will never be possible.

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Islamic State’s Reality Check on Dhimmitude

Dhimmi are non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state who are allowed to remain in exchange for paying the jizyah, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. As the Prophet Muhammad conquered a new empire, large numbers of Christians, Jews, and others found themselves living under the Islamic Empire’s rule, subject to the jizyah and the limitations of dhimmi status.

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Dhimmi are non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state who are allowed to remain in exchange for paying the jizyah, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. As the Prophet Muhammad conquered a new empire, large numbers of Christians, Jews, and others found themselves living under the Islamic Empire’s rule, subject to the jizyah and the limitations of dhimmi status.

Fast forward almost 1,400 years: Academics today who cover Islamic civilizations and history almost uniformly teach that early Islamic rule was enlightened. If they cover the jizyah and “dhimmitude” at all, they are soft-pedaled. Rather than conquer by the sword, most residents of those areas brought into the Islamic Empire joined voluntarily, it is said.

Certainly, a few authors have taken on the notion of dhimmitude and the whitewashed narrative peddled in Islamic studies courses and texts. Egyptian-born British writer Gisèle Littman, for example, writing under the pseudonym Bat Ye’or, penned Islam and Dhimmitude back in 2001, providing a precise and critically acclaimed study of the subjugation of Jews and Christians in Islamic lands. Likewise, Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad provides crucial context and fills out the historical record by including non-Arabic sources which describe subjugation from the point of view of those suffering under Islamic domination. Nevertheless, Bat Ye’or and Bostom remain rare on university syllabuses in courses taught by professors who prefer not to challenge the dominant narrative. Others prefer to seize upon controversial or careless remarks by those focused on the treatment of religious minorities in Islamic history to disqualify the author’s entire body of work. Critics do this deliberately when they cannot counter effectively the historical facts cited or sources revealed.

Perhaps if there’s any silver lining to events in Mosul, where the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, Abubakr al-Baghdadi, has demanded Christians pay the jizyah, convert, or die, it will be to force scholars to rethink the benevolent narrative which they often embrace of early Islamic conversions and successive caliphates and Islamic empires’ treatment of minorities. There is nothing benevolent, enlightened, or non-violent about denial of religious freedom or liberty, nor is forcing religious minorities into second-class status on the basis of their faith ever anything other than oppression, plain and simple.

It would be wrong to castigate the Islamic empire and reign of Muhammad, his successor rashidun caliphs, or the Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties completely. But it is as wrong to whitewash them. Perhaps it is time for a little less hagiography toward Islamic history in American and European institutions, and a little more common sense.

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Will Kerry Hand Hamas a Victory?

Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

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Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

Secretary Kerry’s hot-mic moment when he sarcastically mocked Israeli efforts to destroy part of Hamas’s underground tunnel complex in Shejaiya was a telling moment in the conflict. Once back live on the air, Kerry reiterated support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But the comments, along with President Obama’s statement of “serious concern” about the casualties from the operation against the Hamas fortress, was the backdrop for the decision to send the secretary of state back to Cairo today to work on a cease-fire. While in principle that seems like the right thing to do at a moment when the conflict is heating up, it is difficult to escape the impression that Kerry’s mission is more an opportunity for an unforced error by Washington–one that will allow Hamas to emerge from the fray with a victory–than a mission of mercy.

Hamas was correct in its estimation that provoking a ground invasion would produce Palestinian casualties that fueled the fire of anti-Israel sentiment across the globe. Armed with the backing of Qatar, Turkey, and radical Islamists across the region as well as bolstered by the sympathy of international opinion that can always be counted on to damn any Israeli measure of self-defense even when the Jewish state is being assailed by rockets and tunnel infiltrations, Hamas believes it can simply stand its ground. The longer the bloody battle to disarm the Islamist terror movement that rules Gaza goes on, the more Palestinian human shields will die. That, in turn, will raise the pressure on Egypt to open up its border with Gaza and end the political and economic isolation that has hampered the terror group since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo last year.

However, Hamas may have, for once, underestimated the resolve of both Israel’s government and its people. Prime Minister Netanyahu was slow to order the ground operation despite being given ample reason to send in troops once Hamas started launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities. He also gave Hamas ample opportunities to stand down and accept cease-fires that the Islamists consistently rejected. But once the die was cast, the prime minister seems to be serious about not repeating the mistakes his country made in the recent past whereby it gave Hamas the impression that there was nothing it could do that would be enough to prompt a decision to take out the group’s terror infrastructure. The methodical offensive appears to be doing serious damage to Hamas’s capacity to inflict terror on Israel. If it is allowed to continue, there is a chance that Israel will finally land a lethal blow against the group that is the real obstacle to peace in the region.

Just as important as Netanyahu’s resolve is the reaction of Israel’s people to the crisis. It is likely that Hamas believed Israelis too fearful of paying the high price in blood–both in terms of its own soldiers and Palestinians–to significantly impact the strategic equation along the Gaza border. But so far, despite the frayed nerves of people tired of having to run for bomb shelters and horrified by the loss of life in the fighting, support for the government appears to be strong. A visit to Israel’s southern region showed me that despite the best efforts of Hamas, life is going on even in the areas that have been most affected. Moreover, the faces of the busloads of Israeli reservists who are being shipped into the area of the border showed that the country’s citizen soldiers remain committed to doing what must be done to ensure their country’s safety. If Hamas thought Netanyahu was too politically weak to make hard decisions or that Israelis would turn on him and succumb to foreign pressure, it may have made a crucial mistake.

But that resolve is not shared by Israel’s American ally. Though nothing would do more to pave the way for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians that both Obama and Kerry have ceaselessly advocated than the weakening or the elimination of Hamas, neither man appears to have the intestinal fortitude to unwaveringly back an operation that would do just that. For months Washington has been sending mixed messages to the region that have encouraged the Islamists to believe the U.S.-Israel alliance was weakening as blame for the collapse of Kerry’s negotiations was placed solely on Israel despite the fact that it was the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas that finally ended that fool’s errand. Moreover, by constantly carping about Israel’s counter-attacks after Hamas launched the current war, the administration has encouraged the terrorists to believe that the U.S. won’t let them be defeated.

Thus Kerry’s decision to fly to Cairo to work on a cease-fire is exactly the news that Hamas wanted to hear. They have already made it clear they don’t care how many Palestinians die in the conflict they provoked so long as the end result grants them the political concessions from Egypt that will further their cause. They know that if the U.S. was not prepared to pressure the Egyptian government to throw Hamas a bone or to force Israel to stop operations aimed at eliminating their rocket arsenal and blowing up their underground fortresses, there was no reason for Kerry to come to the region. A cease-fire that would grant Hamas no political victories didn’t require the personal presence of the secretary in Cairo. But by bending to the usual hypocritical international outcry against any Israeli attempt to take out the terror nest on their border, the administration is signalling that it won’t let Netanyahu take out Hamas or allow Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to stand his ground about sealing his country’s border against infiltration from an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood he deposed.

Were Obama and Kerry prepared to show the kind of resolve that Netanyahu and Sisi have exhibited it would be very bad news indeed for Hamas and its foreign cheerleaders that continue to nurture delusions about Israel’s destruction. Instead, the U.S. appears to be as clueless as ever about the stakes involved in this fight and cracking under the pressure generated by the Palestinians sacrificed by Hamas on the altar of their jihadist mission. If so, the price paid by both Israelis and Palestinians in the future will be considerable.

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