Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 20, 2011

What Netanyahu Did Today

Has there ever been a moment like the one Benjamin Netanyahu had today following his meeting with President Obama? I can’t think of one. When has a president ever made a joint appearance with the leader of an ally in the wake of a controversial policy proposal, only to have that ally push back against him publicly? Netanyahu’s powerful—and surprisingly graceful, considering the context—remarks can be read in full here.  The only moment that even remotely compares wasn’t a diplomatic one; it was when Elie Wiesel, during the dustup over Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetary in West Germany in 1985, was given a Medal of Freedom and with beautiful understatement said to the president, “This place is not your place.” We got a glimpse of the Bibi that so electrified the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was serving as Israel’s chief spokesman in the English language in this stunning passage:

We’ve been around for almost 4,000 years. We have experienced struggle and suffering like no other people. We’ve gone through expulsions and pogroms and massacres and the murder of millions.

But I can say that even at the dearth of — even at the nadir of the valley of death, we never lost hope and we never lost our dream of re-establishing a sovereign state in our ancient homeland, the land of Israel. And now it falls on my shoulders as the prime minister of Israel at a time of extraordinary instability and uncertainty in the Middle East to work with you to fashion a peace that will ensure Israel’s security and will not jeopardize its survival.

I take this responsibility with pride but with great humility, because, as I told you in our conversation, we don’t have a lot of margin for error and because, Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.

It was very nervy of Bibi, and certainly opens him up to the charge of being chutzpahdik with Israel’s greatest ally. But what exactly did he have to lose? He faces a hostile president, but one who governs a country overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. Could things get worse with Obama than they were last year? And could things get better for Netanyahu if Obama finds he is paying a price for being at odds with the American people on one of the few foreign policy issues they care about?

Has there ever been a moment like the one Benjamin Netanyahu had today following his meeting with President Obama? I can’t think of one. When has a president ever made a joint appearance with the leader of an ally in the wake of a controversial policy proposal, only to have that ally push back against him publicly? Netanyahu’s powerful—and surprisingly graceful, considering the context—remarks can be read in full here.  The only moment that even remotely compares wasn’t a diplomatic one; it was when Elie Wiesel, during the dustup over Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetary in West Germany in 1985, was given a Medal of Freedom and with beautiful understatement said to the president, “This place is not your place.” We got a glimpse of the Bibi that so electrified the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was serving as Israel’s chief spokesman in the English language in this stunning passage:

We’ve been around for almost 4,000 years. We have experienced struggle and suffering like no other people. We’ve gone through expulsions and pogroms and massacres and the murder of millions.

But I can say that even at the dearth of — even at the nadir of the valley of death, we never lost hope and we never lost our dream of re-establishing a sovereign state in our ancient homeland, the land of Israel. And now it falls on my shoulders as the prime minister of Israel at a time of extraordinary instability and uncertainty in the Middle East to work with you to fashion a peace that will ensure Israel’s security and will not jeopardize its survival.

I take this responsibility with pride but with great humility, because, as I told you in our conversation, we don’t have a lot of margin for error and because, Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.

It was very nervy of Bibi, and certainly opens him up to the charge of being chutzpahdik with Israel’s greatest ally. But what exactly did he have to lose? He faces a hostile president, but one who governs a country overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. Could things get worse with Obama than they were last year? And could things get better for Netanyahu if Obama finds he is paying a price for being at odds with the American people on one of the few foreign policy issues they care about?

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Days of Violence, Days of Mourning, Days of War

President Obama’s call yesterday to begin negotiations for a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders has elicited a lot of excellent analysis here at Contentions. I wanted to add several points to what has been written.

The first is that President Obama’s speech was marked by astonishing self-deception. He presented a two-state solution that would already have been achieved long ago, if Israel were dealing with a genuine “peace partner.” But instead Israel is dealing with entities—Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—that are bent on its destruction of Israel or too powerless to stop it. (Doubts about the intentions of the PA have understandably increased ever since it engaged in a unity pact with Hamas.)

It is worse than folly to assume an agreement can be reached unless and until the Palestinians make their own inner peace with the existence of the Jewish state. That has not yet happened and until it does, repeating like a incantation the argument that a “lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples” is useless.

On one side is Israel, bone-weary for peace; on the other side, the Palestinians, who preach a steady diet of murderous anti-Semitism to their children and whose leadership has shown a fierce and burning hatred for Israel. It is stupid and morally indefensible to apply pressure to the former until there is a profound shift in attitudes by the latter. But thanks to President Obama, altering the rejectionist precepts of the Palestinians is less rather than more likely. Why should the Palestinians shift their stance if Obama is willing to do their bidding for them?

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President Obama’s call yesterday to begin negotiations for a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders has elicited a lot of excellent analysis here at Contentions. I wanted to add several points to what has been written.

The first is that President Obama’s speech was marked by astonishing self-deception. He presented a two-state solution that would already have been achieved long ago, if Israel were dealing with a genuine “peace partner.” But instead Israel is dealing with entities—Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—that are bent on its destruction of Israel or too powerless to stop it. (Doubts about the intentions of the PA have understandably increased ever since it engaged in a unity pact with Hamas.)

It is worse than folly to assume an agreement can be reached unless and until the Palestinians make their own inner peace with the existence of the Jewish state. That has not yet happened and until it does, repeating like a incantation the argument that a “lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples” is useless.

On one side is Israel, bone-weary for peace; on the other side, the Palestinians, who preach a steady diet of murderous anti-Semitism to their children and whose leadership has shown a fierce and burning hatred for Israel. It is stupid and morally indefensible to apply pressure to the former until there is a profound shift in attitudes by the latter. But thanks to President Obama, altering the rejectionist precepts of the Palestinians is less rather than more likely. Why should the Palestinians shift their stance if Obama is willing to do their bidding for them?

Then there is President Obama’s claim in his speech that “Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace,” a statement which raises questions about whether the president is aware of even the most basic facts on this matter.

To be specific: Is Obama aware that Israel has been willing to “act boldly to advance a lasting peace” since before its existence, when Israel accepted a U.N. proposal to establish two states in the region—one Jewish, the other Arab? We know that Arab states rejected that plan, which granted Israel land that constituted one-sixth of one percent of what was known as the Arab world, and five Arab armies invaded Israel the day after its independence was declared in order to annihilate her.

Is the president aware that from 1948 through 1967 Jordan and Egypt controlled the West Bank and Gaza—and during that time neither nation lifted a finger to establish a Palestinian state? Or that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), whose declared purpose was the elimination of Israel, was founded in 1964—three years before the West Bank and Gaza fell under Israeli control? Or that in 1970 King Hussein of Jordan announced a war on the PLO, his army’s slaughtering tens of thousands of Palestinians and eradicating the PLO from Jordan? Or that when the PLO moved to Lebanon and created a state within a state and that by 1975 Lebanon—once known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”—was ruined?

Is President Obama aware that the land Israel won in 1967—including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights—was the result of a war of aggression by Arab states against Israel? Or that after its victory in the so-called “Six Day War” Israel signaled to the Arab states its willingness to relinquish virtually all the territories it acquired in exchange for peace—but that hope was crushed in August 1967 when Arab leaders met in Khartoum and adopted a formula that became known as the “three noes”: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.

Does the president realize that in 1978 Prime Minister Menachem Begin submitted an accord with Egypt to the Knesset that won overwhelming bipartisan approval—and as a result Israel returned to Egypt the strategically crucial and oil-rich Sinai desert—territory three times the size of Israel and more than 90 percent of the land Israel took control of in the 1967 war? Is Obama aware that in the summer of 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered up an astonishing set of concessions to Yasir Arafat, including having Israel withdraw to virtually all of the 1949-1967 boundaries, so that a Palestinian state could be proclaimed with its capital in Jerusalem? And that Arafat not only turned down the offer but responded with a second intifada?

I wonder, too, if President Obama is aware that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally and entirely withdrew Israel from the Gaza strip, only to watch as the militant group Hamas took control and began to shower Israel with rocket attacks.

I have detailed this history only because it’s terribly relevant to what is happening in the here and now. If one has even a cursory understanding of the history of Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then it would be obvious where the credit lies, where the blame rests, and where the pressure needs to be applied.

The facts I have enumerated here are not state secrets; they are part of the historical record and easily accessible. Before Obama decides to weigh in on the matter of Israel, its borders, and what steps it ought to take for peace, he might take the time to acquaint himself with the truth of events. If he does, he will come to realize that unless and until the Palestinians give up their goal of creating a state that reaches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, no amount of Israeli good will and no amount of territorial concessions will lead to peace. It will, in fact, only inflame the passions of Israel’s enemies and draw the Jewish people closer to days of violence, days of mourning, days of war.

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Bachmann Close to Announcing Presidential Run

Rep. Michele Bachmann has been hinting at a presidential run for awhile, and her announcement is likely to come on Thursday according to the chairman of the Polk County Republican Party in Iowa.

“Bachmann is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a fund-raising dinner for the party Thursday evening,” reported the Des Moines Register today. “Kevin McLaughlin, the party’s county chairman, said there is a good chance she will make her announcement there.”

Announcing in Iowa would be a smart move for Bachmann, who already has a decent chance of success in the state. Not only is she an Iowa native, but she’s also a favorite of the social conservatives who tend to dominate the state’s caucuses.

In another indication that she has her eye on the primaries, Bachmann placed 150,000 robocalls into Iowa and South Carolina after President Obama’s speech yesterday, criticizing him for his comments on Israel.

With Huckabee out of the race, Bachmann is in a prime position to replace him as the social conservative candidate, as long as Sarah Palin doesn’t enter the picture. She’s also an excellent fundraiser with a strong grassroots following, though she’s way too divisive to win a national election. By entering the race, she’d probably push the rest of the field to the right and make social issues a more prominent part of the primaries.

Rep. Michele Bachmann has been hinting at a presidential run for awhile, and her announcement is likely to come on Thursday according to the chairman of the Polk County Republican Party in Iowa.

“Bachmann is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a fund-raising dinner for the party Thursday evening,” reported the Des Moines Register today. “Kevin McLaughlin, the party’s county chairman, said there is a good chance she will make her announcement there.”

Announcing in Iowa would be a smart move for Bachmann, who already has a decent chance of success in the state. Not only is she an Iowa native, but she’s also a favorite of the social conservatives who tend to dominate the state’s caucuses.

In another indication that she has her eye on the primaries, Bachmann placed 150,000 robocalls into Iowa and South Carolina after President Obama’s speech yesterday, criticizing him for his comments on Israel.

With Huckabee out of the race, Bachmann is in a prime position to replace him as the social conservative candidate, as long as Sarah Palin doesn’t enter the picture. She’s also an excellent fundraiser with a strong grassroots following, though she’s way too divisive to win a national election. By entering the race, she’d probably push the rest of the field to the right and make social issues a more prominent part of the primaries.

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Huntsman Makes Romney Look Principled

One of the greatest obstacles to Mitt Romney’s quest for the presidency has been his reputation for incessant flip-flopping. From abortion to health care, Romney’s positions have been all over the place, fluctuating with the political winds and the voters he’s trying to win over. But there is one point on which he is as steadfast as the Rock of Gibraltar: his Mormon faith.

There were those who wondered whether the addition of an unprecedented second Mormon presidential candidate in the form of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman would steal some of Romney’s Latter-Day Saints thunder. But far from eating into the former Massachusetts governor’s base of support, Huntsman appears to have alienated them, and in the process, made Mitt look like a stand-up guy.

According to a piece in Politico, LDS members are viewing Huntsman’s decision to place his national campaign headquarters in Orlando, Florida rather than on the shores of the Great Salt Lake with dismay. Even worse, various opinions attributed to Huntsman about his Mormonism are being interpreted as an effort to distance himself from his religion. At a time when the LDS church has become a popular culture piñata with HBO’s recently concluded Big Love and Broadway’s Book of Mormon both skewering the Saints, they have good reason to be sensitive about a public figure that seems ashamed or uncertain about his identity.

By contrast, Romney has never wavered in his willingness to go before the public as a devout Mormon. His 2008 campaign speech in which he took on the question of whether Americans would vote for a Mormon was a model of principled consistency. Whatever other problems voters had with Romney, they had to respect his willingness to stand up for his faith.

Huntsman’s long shot presidential bid seems to be predicated on selling Republicans on the idea of nominating a more centrist figure whose views on global warming and other hot button issues are not in sync with the party’s base. Perhaps as part of that he thinks he needs to “transcend” his Mormon background. If so, that’s a mistake. Many Americans may not know what to think about the LDS church but there’s no doubt that they will think even less of a politician who is trying to run away from the faith of his fathers.

One of the greatest obstacles to Mitt Romney’s quest for the presidency has been his reputation for incessant flip-flopping. From abortion to health care, Romney’s positions have been all over the place, fluctuating with the political winds and the voters he’s trying to win over. But there is one point on which he is as steadfast as the Rock of Gibraltar: his Mormon faith.

There were those who wondered whether the addition of an unprecedented second Mormon presidential candidate in the form of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman would steal some of Romney’s Latter-Day Saints thunder. But far from eating into the former Massachusetts governor’s base of support, Huntsman appears to have alienated them, and in the process, made Mitt look like a stand-up guy.

According to a piece in Politico, LDS members are viewing Huntsman’s decision to place his national campaign headquarters in Orlando, Florida rather than on the shores of the Great Salt Lake with dismay. Even worse, various opinions attributed to Huntsman about his Mormonism are being interpreted as an effort to distance himself from his religion. At a time when the LDS church has become a popular culture piñata with HBO’s recently concluded Big Love and Broadway’s Book of Mormon both skewering the Saints, they have good reason to be sensitive about a public figure that seems ashamed or uncertain about his identity.

By contrast, Romney has never wavered in his willingness to go before the public as a devout Mormon. His 2008 campaign speech in which he took on the question of whether Americans would vote for a Mormon was a model of principled consistency. Whatever other problems voters had with Romney, they had to respect his willingness to stand up for his faith.

Huntsman’s long shot presidential bid seems to be predicated on selling Republicans on the idea of nominating a more centrist figure whose views on global warming and other hot button issues are not in sync with the party’s base. Perhaps as part of that he thinks he needs to “transcend” his Mormon background. If so, that’s a mistake. Many Americans may not know what to think about the LDS church but there’s no doubt that they will think even less of a politician who is trying to run away from the faith of his fathers.

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Are Recent College Grads Tiring of Obama?

A new informal survey showing a dramatic drop in support for Obama among recent college graduates has been making its way around the conservative blogs today. While the findings seem a bit too good to be true—only 27 percent of respondents said they will definitely vote for Obama in 2012—they also indicate a developing trend. Other recent polls have also shown that Obama doesn’t have the youth vote locked up for 2012. At the very least, it means that the youthful enthusiasm for the president that helped elect him in 2008 has somewhat diminished.

A similar Harvard poll from March found that 38 percent of young voters planned to vote for the president’s reelection, 25 percent planned to vote for the Republican, and the rest were unsure. The biggest issue for these voters is the economy, with 53 percent saying it was the most important national issue (in comparison, health care came in second at just 10 percent). The focus on the economy means that Republican candidates are in a prime position to reach out to them.

The GOP often ignores the youth vote, but this could be an easy demographic to target in 2012. The issues that matter most to the Republican base are also the issues that matter most to recent college graduates and independents.

And a GOP candidate would easily be able to counter Obama’s outreach to young people, which is wildly predictable and condescending. His campaign seems to believe that youth voters are won over by technology, social media and slickness – they’re not. Which is why their votes are still up for grabs. And if Republicans are able to tailor an economic message for young people that’s both bold and sensible, then the party could manage to make headway with this demographic.

A new informal survey showing a dramatic drop in support for Obama among recent college graduates has been making its way around the conservative blogs today. While the findings seem a bit too good to be true—only 27 percent of respondents said they will definitely vote for Obama in 2012—they also indicate a developing trend. Other recent polls have also shown that Obama doesn’t have the youth vote locked up for 2012. At the very least, it means that the youthful enthusiasm for the president that helped elect him in 2008 has somewhat diminished.

A similar Harvard poll from March found that 38 percent of young voters planned to vote for the president’s reelection, 25 percent planned to vote for the Republican, and the rest were unsure. The biggest issue for these voters is the economy, with 53 percent saying it was the most important national issue (in comparison, health care came in second at just 10 percent). The focus on the economy means that Republican candidates are in a prime position to reach out to them.

The GOP often ignores the youth vote, but this could be an easy demographic to target in 2012. The issues that matter most to the Republican base are also the issues that matter most to recent college graduates and independents.

And a GOP candidate would easily be able to counter Obama’s outreach to young people, which is wildly predictable and condescending. His campaign seems to believe that youth voters are won over by technology, social media and slickness – they’re not. Which is why their votes are still up for grabs. And if Republicans are able to tailor an economic message for young people that’s both bold and sensible, then the party could manage to make headway with this demographic.

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Bibi and Obama: Who’s the One Being Disrespected?

Benjamin Netanyahu has a well-earned reputation as a prickly and not particularly likable man. But the effort on the part of some writers to brand his reply to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East yesterday as showing “disrespect” is the height of absurdity.

That’s the line that the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg took today when he slammed Netanyahu for saying that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress.” According to Goldberg, who is now also being echoed by John R. Guardino at the American Spectator, Netanyahu is being uppity. Vassal states, even ones Americans (including those two writers) support, have no business “expecting” anything from their suzerain, the president of the United States. To their way of thinking, an Israeli leader talking back to Obama is “disrespectful.” How dare he tell Obama that he has violated past promises—past American promises—in order to place extra pressure on Israel to surrender territory, even though we all know that the Palestinians have no intention of making peace no matter where Israel’s borders are drawn? If Obama is inclined to treat the Jewish state cavalierly, then I suppose Netanyahu should just say, “Thank you, sir. May I please have another?”

To compare Netanyahu’s answer to the sort of anti-American slanders of a Hugo Chavez or the transparent lies of Pakistani officials who claim to have had no knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, as Goldberg does, is more than a bit over the top.

But both Goldberg and Guardino are ignoring the context of a dispute that was carefully planned by the White House to show disrespect to Netanyahu. The president’s inclusion of a passage proclaiming the sanctity of the 1967 lines in a speech otherwise intended to deal with the Arab Spring revolts on the day before Netanyahu arrived in the United States for a visit was more than just “awkward” as Goldberg put it. It was a clear provocation aimed at embarrassing the Israeli.

They are also forgetting that this is not the first time that Barack Obama has picked a pointless fight with Israel during his presidency. Obama threw a monkey wrench into the already stalled peace process in 2009 by insisting on a unilateral concession from Israel in the form of a settlement freeze. Obama’s goal was to destabilize Netanyahu’s government but all he accomplished was to convince the Palestinians there was no reason for them to negotiate as long as Obama was hammering the Israelis. A year later, Obama picked a fight over building homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and then personally insulted Netanyahu when he came to the White House to talk it over.

Israel needs the United States and its leaders are obligated to speak and act respectfully towards the president. But there is a difference between “disrespect” and an ally reminding the president that broken promises won’t be ignored. Respect goes two ways and Obama, a leader who has a history of cavalierly dismissing the sensibilities of American allies, cannot pretend that he is the injured party here. Having picked this fight in a particularly undiplomatic manner, Obama has no business playing the victim.

Benjamin Netanyahu has a well-earned reputation as a prickly and not particularly likable man. But the effort on the part of some writers to brand his reply to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East yesterday as showing “disrespect” is the height of absurdity.

That’s the line that the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg took today when he slammed Netanyahu for saying that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress.” According to Goldberg, who is now also being echoed by John R. Guardino at the American Spectator, Netanyahu is being uppity. Vassal states, even ones Americans (including those two writers) support, have no business “expecting” anything from their suzerain, the president of the United States. To their way of thinking, an Israeli leader talking back to Obama is “disrespectful.” How dare he tell Obama that he has violated past promises—past American promises—in order to place extra pressure on Israel to surrender territory, even though we all know that the Palestinians have no intention of making peace no matter where Israel’s borders are drawn? If Obama is inclined to treat the Jewish state cavalierly, then I suppose Netanyahu should just say, “Thank you, sir. May I please have another?”

To compare Netanyahu’s answer to the sort of anti-American slanders of a Hugo Chavez or the transparent lies of Pakistani officials who claim to have had no knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, as Goldberg does, is more than a bit over the top.

But both Goldberg and Guardino are ignoring the context of a dispute that was carefully planned by the White House to show disrespect to Netanyahu. The president’s inclusion of a passage proclaiming the sanctity of the 1967 lines in a speech otherwise intended to deal with the Arab Spring revolts on the day before Netanyahu arrived in the United States for a visit was more than just “awkward” as Goldberg put it. It was a clear provocation aimed at embarrassing the Israeli.

They are also forgetting that this is not the first time that Barack Obama has picked a pointless fight with Israel during his presidency. Obama threw a monkey wrench into the already stalled peace process in 2009 by insisting on a unilateral concession from Israel in the form of a settlement freeze. Obama’s goal was to destabilize Netanyahu’s government but all he accomplished was to convince the Palestinians there was no reason for them to negotiate as long as Obama was hammering the Israelis. A year later, Obama picked a fight over building homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and then personally insulted Netanyahu when he came to the White House to talk it over.

Israel needs the United States and its leaders are obligated to speak and act respectfully towards the president. But there is a difference between “disrespect” and an ally reminding the president that broken promises won’t be ignored. Respect goes two ways and Obama, a leader who has a history of cavalierly dismissing the sensibilities of American allies, cannot pretend that he is the injured party here. Having picked this fight in a particularly undiplomatic manner, Obama has no business playing the victim.

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Is Pawlenty Mr. Nice or Mr. Plausible?

Tim Pawlenty is set to formally announce his candidacy for the presidency on Monday and then concentrate on fundraising for a while as he tries to establish himself as the Republican who can not only win the nomination but also beat Barack Obama next year.

Pawlenty’s problem so far is that while he is well respected by political observers as a serious candidate, not too many people know the two-term governor outside of Minnesota. So unlike Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign rollout that sought to re-introduce (albeit disastrously) a household name to America, Pawlenty is trying to market himself to an electorate that has only a vague idea of who he is or what he stands for. The candidate’s mild-mannered demeanor and unwillingness to rant and rave is therefore something of a liability.

That was the upshot of a profile of Pawlenty is this week’s Time magazine titled “Mr. Nice Guy.” The niceness does come across in the piece. His public style is the antithesis of fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann and potential presidential rival, who is loud, brassy and quite willing to step on any toes that she thinks she could be crushed. Pawlenty is competing with Bachmann for the evangelical vote in Iowa (he’s one himself), a state that both of them need for the candidacies to survive. But his real competition is not the Tea Party heroine but the two other mainstream heavy-hitters, Mitt Romney and possible candidate Mitch Daniels.

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Tim Pawlenty is set to formally announce his candidacy for the presidency on Monday and then concentrate on fundraising for a while as he tries to establish himself as the Republican who can not only win the nomination but also beat Barack Obama next year.

Pawlenty’s problem so far is that while he is well respected by political observers as a serious candidate, not too many people know the two-term governor outside of Minnesota. So unlike Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign rollout that sought to re-introduce (albeit disastrously) a household name to America, Pawlenty is trying to market himself to an electorate that has only a vague idea of who he is or what he stands for. The candidate’s mild-mannered demeanor and unwillingness to rant and rave is therefore something of a liability.

That was the upshot of a profile of Pawlenty is this week’s Time magazine titled “Mr. Nice Guy.” The niceness does come across in the piece. His public style is the antithesis of fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann and potential presidential rival, who is loud, brassy and quite willing to step on any toes that she thinks she could be crushed. Pawlenty is competing with Bachmann for the evangelical vote in Iowa (he’s one himself), a state that both of them need for the candidacies to survive. But his real competition is not the Tea Party heroine but the two other mainstream heavy-hitters, Mitt Romney and possible candidate Mitch Daniels.

Like those two fellow governors, Pawlenty can run on his fiscally conservative record. Though he bears the burden of having once been a supporter of environmental alarmist cap and trade bills (for which he has apologized), that is nothing compared to the handicap that Romney has on health care. What makes him potentially formidable is that he combines fiscal credentials that are essential this year with an evangelical background that is crucial to generating enthusiastic support from the party faithful. As those who watched his performance in the first GOP presidential debate earlier this month saw, Pawlenty’s manner is pleasant and earnest but also a little too slick which makes him sound a bit smarmy.

But the debate also established that, unlike the absent Daniels, who is a foreign policy novice, Pawlenty knows what he is talking about when he speaks about those issues. His quick and incisive criticism of President Obama’s Middle East speech yesterday was also a tribute to his grasp of the topic as well as a keen political instinct for weakness in an opponent.

If, as there is every reason to believe, the GOP presidential filled is virtually set with Daniels about to jump in and Sarah Palin, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan staying out, then Pawlenty needs only to keep his candidacy viable over the next few months to be considered a genuine contender. When you consider that Romney, though the candidate with the most money, has no chance of selling the public on his two-faced stand on health care, and that Daniels is an even duller speaker than Pawlenty and thoroughly unknowledgeable about anything other than budgets, the largely unknown Minnesotan’s path to the nomination seems less far-fetched.

In short, Pawlenty is running as Mr. Plausible, the man who is not as slick as Romney, not as boring as Daniels, not as flaky as Bachmann, not as extreme as Santorum and not as unacceptably moderate as Jon Huntsman. Like his “Minnesota nice” personality that seems just pleasant enough to please but not enough to excite, the former governor is hoping that his mediocrity will work in his favor.

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A Filibuster That Goes Around Comes Around

I never cease to be amazed at the shameless hypocrisy of politicians. They will, with the utmost sincerity say one day that X is Y and only a fool or a knave would deny it. And the next day say, with equal sincerity, that X is not Y and never can be and only a fool or a knave would deny it.

Consider Barbara Boxer, Senator from California (a title you’d be well advised not to forget if you happen to be testifying before her). If there is a Democratic president, then Senator Boxer thinks filibustering a judicial nominee is abhorrent, a perversion of constitutional principles, etc., etc. In 1998, with Clinton in the White House, she said on the floor of the Senate, “Mr. President, I am very glad that we are moving forward with judges today. We all hear, as we are growing up, that, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ and we have, in many of our courts, vacancies that have gone on for a year, two years, and in many cases it is getting to the crisis level. So I am pleased that we will be voting. I think, whether the delays are on the Republican side or the Democratic side, let these names come up, let us have debate, let us vote.”

Fast forward to 2003, when Miguel Estrada had been nominated by President Bush to a seat on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Senator Boxer said then that the filibuster protected the Senate’s ability to stop radical appointments. “The president should reread the Constitution and understand that the power to appoint judges is a shared power between the Senate and the president.” She voted to filibuster Miguel Estrada, the first time an appeals court nominee had ever been filibustered. Indeed, Senator Barbara Let-Us-Debate-Let-Us-Vote Boxer filibustered all ten Bush nominations to circuit courts of appeal in the years 2003-2005.

Now it’s 2011 and a Democrat is in the White House and nominated Goodwin Liu to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Suddenly the filibuster is once again an outrage against American democracy and sense of fair play. In a remarkably ill-tempered speech on the Senate floor she lectured Republicans that Democrats would not forget. ”This is not going to go down easily,” said Senator Boxer. “I think the ramifications of this filibuster are going to be long and difficult for those who caused this good man to be filibustered.”

Miguel Estrada is also a good man and a brilliant legal mind, Senator. What goes around comes around. And in the United States Senate that goes double.

I never cease to be amazed at the shameless hypocrisy of politicians. They will, with the utmost sincerity say one day that X is Y and only a fool or a knave would deny it. And the next day say, with equal sincerity, that X is not Y and never can be and only a fool or a knave would deny it.

Consider Barbara Boxer, Senator from California (a title you’d be well advised not to forget if you happen to be testifying before her). If there is a Democratic president, then Senator Boxer thinks filibustering a judicial nominee is abhorrent, a perversion of constitutional principles, etc., etc. In 1998, with Clinton in the White House, she said on the floor of the Senate, “Mr. President, I am very glad that we are moving forward with judges today. We all hear, as we are growing up, that, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ and we have, in many of our courts, vacancies that have gone on for a year, two years, and in many cases it is getting to the crisis level. So I am pleased that we will be voting. I think, whether the delays are on the Republican side or the Democratic side, let these names come up, let us have debate, let us vote.”

Fast forward to 2003, when Miguel Estrada had been nominated by President Bush to a seat on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Senator Boxer said then that the filibuster protected the Senate’s ability to stop radical appointments. “The president should reread the Constitution and understand that the power to appoint judges is a shared power between the Senate and the president.” She voted to filibuster Miguel Estrada, the first time an appeals court nominee had ever been filibustered. Indeed, Senator Barbara Let-Us-Debate-Let-Us-Vote Boxer filibustered all ten Bush nominations to circuit courts of appeal in the years 2003-2005.

Now it’s 2011 and a Democrat is in the White House and nominated Goodwin Liu to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Suddenly the filibuster is once again an outrage against American democracy and sense of fair play. In a remarkably ill-tempered speech on the Senate floor she lectured Republicans that Democrats would not forget. ”This is not going to go down easily,” said Senator Boxer. “I think the ramifications of this filibuster are going to be long and difficult for those who caused this good man to be filibustered.”

Miguel Estrada is also a good man and a brilliant legal mind, Senator. What goes around comes around. And in the United States Senate that goes double.

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Daniels Flunks the Israel Test

While his potential opponents such as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Michelle Bachmann jumped all over President Obama for his Middle East speech yesterday, Mitch Daniels reaction’s reaction was rather cool. According to Politico, Daniels had this to say about Obama’s demand that the 1967 lines be the starting point for peace negotiations in the future:

What is going on in the Arab world these days has little or nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, it has to do with tyrannical regimes which have really stifled prospects for their people who are now restless for a better life. . . . I don’t think right now it pays very much of a dividend to try to cut the Gordian Knot of Israel and Palestine.

Daniels is right that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with the Arab Spring. But he failed to note how Obama had tilted the diplomatic playing toward the Palestinians or the significance of the 1967 lines for efforts to re-partition Jerusalem (a point that Pawlenty highlighted). Nor did notice, as Bachmann and Romney did, the fact that this was clearly intended as an insult to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who arrives in the United States today for a visit.

While Politico’s Ben Smith approvingly notes the bipartisan tone that Daniels seems to be adopting, it is somewhat unusual these days for someone who is thinking of running for president to fail to take an opportunity to demonstrate his support for Israel and to criticize the incumbent for taking a swipe at the Jewish state.

One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that he really is a disciple of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, one of the leading foreign policy “realists” in Washington, who has always been cool to Israel. Daniels was an aide to Lugar in his youth and while that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he had adopted the senator’s philosophy on all things, it is not an insignificant fact.

Daniels has always been something of a cipher on foreign policy. As for his support for Israel, the sum total of proof provided by his friends of his affection for the Jewish state was one speech given at an ADL dinner. On the other side of the ledger, there was his recent appearance at a dinner given by the Arab-American Institute, a left-leaning anti-Israel group that honored him because the Indiana governor’s grandparents came from Syria. While his heritage means nothing in this discussion, his reaction to the president’s speech does tell us he doesn’t appear to have strong feelings about American support for the Jewish State.

Daniels admitted to journalists earlier this month that he didn’t feel he was prepared to debate President Obama on the topic. But on the basis of his reaction to yesterday’s speech, it doesn’t appear as if he found much to disagree with Obama’s positions on the Middle East. That’s bad news for those who hoped to build support for his presidential candidacy in the Jewish community as well as among Evangelical Christians who already didn’t think much of him.

While his potential opponents such as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Michelle Bachmann jumped all over President Obama for his Middle East speech yesterday, Mitch Daniels reaction’s reaction was rather cool. According to Politico, Daniels had this to say about Obama’s demand that the 1967 lines be the starting point for peace negotiations in the future:

What is going on in the Arab world these days has little or nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, it has to do with tyrannical regimes which have really stifled prospects for their people who are now restless for a better life. . . . I don’t think right now it pays very much of a dividend to try to cut the Gordian Knot of Israel and Palestine.

Daniels is right that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with the Arab Spring. But he failed to note how Obama had tilted the diplomatic playing toward the Palestinians or the significance of the 1967 lines for efforts to re-partition Jerusalem (a point that Pawlenty highlighted). Nor did notice, as Bachmann and Romney did, the fact that this was clearly intended as an insult to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who arrives in the United States today for a visit.

While Politico’s Ben Smith approvingly notes the bipartisan tone that Daniels seems to be adopting, it is somewhat unusual these days for someone who is thinking of running for president to fail to take an opportunity to demonstrate his support for Israel and to criticize the incumbent for taking a swipe at the Jewish state.

One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that he really is a disciple of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, one of the leading foreign policy “realists” in Washington, who has always been cool to Israel. Daniels was an aide to Lugar in his youth and while that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he had adopted the senator’s philosophy on all things, it is not an insignificant fact.

Daniels has always been something of a cipher on foreign policy. As for his support for Israel, the sum total of proof provided by his friends of his affection for the Jewish state was one speech given at an ADL dinner. On the other side of the ledger, there was his recent appearance at a dinner given by the Arab-American Institute, a left-leaning anti-Israel group that honored him because the Indiana governor’s grandparents came from Syria. While his heritage means nothing in this discussion, his reaction to the president’s speech does tell us he doesn’t appear to have strong feelings about American support for the Jewish State.

Daniels admitted to journalists earlier this month that he didn’t feel he was prepared to debate President Obama on the topic. But on the basis of his reaction to yesterday’s speech, it doesn’t appear as if he found much to disagree with Obama’s positions on the Middle East. That’s bad news for those who hoped to build support for his presidential candidacy in the Jewish community as well as among Evangelical Christians who already didn’t think much of him.

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Senate Dems May Not Propose Budget for “Weeks”

Today marks the 751st day since the Democrats have passed a budget. And it looks as if we may have a while to wait until their next proposal is even introduced. Now that the “Gang of Six” talks have pretty much fallen apart, Sen. Kent Conrad (D–N.Dak.) is refusing to give a set date for when Democrats will have a budget resolution ready, vaguely saying that it will come at some point “in the weeks ahead”:

Following the apparent demise of the vaunted “Gang of Six” budget negotiations in the Senate, Democratic Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said Thursday he still won’t be proposing a budget for “weeks. . . .“ We have decided to defer a budget mark-up because of the high-level bipartisan leadership negotiations that are currently underway,” Conrad said in a written statement, “The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead.”

Conrad says that Democrats are waiting to hear the conclusions of President Biden’s panel on the deficit before they release their proposal. Of course, as Sen. Sessions has pointed out, the Democrats previously delayed the release of their budget plan by claiming they were waiting on the Gang of Six. So it’s getting difficult to take these excuses seriously anymore.

“It seems Senate Democrats are desperately trying to avoid having to present a budget to the American people,” Sessions said in a statement yesterday. “They know that the big spenders in their caucus prevent them from bringing forward a credible plan that both their party and the country can support.”

Sessions is right, but unfortunately the Democrats don’t really have an urgent reason to bring a budget proposal forward. Politically, they probably benefit more at the moment by attacking Ryan’s budget and hoping that the American people don’t notice their failure to propose their own. The question is, how long can this last? The Senate GOP has been in serious attack mode against Democratic foot-dragging recently, and if public anger starts growing then the Conrad will have no choice but to cave in and release a budget plan. But getting him to that point will not be easy.

Today marks the 751st day since the Democrats have passed a budget. And it looks as if we may have a while to wait until their next proposal is even introduced. Now that the “Gang of Six” talks have pretty much fallen apart, Sen. Kent Conrad (D–N.Dak.) is refusing to give a set date for when Democrats will have a budget resolution ready, vaguely saying that it will come at some point “in the weeks ahead”:

Following the apparent demise of the vaunted “Gang of Six” budget negotiations in the Senate, Democratic Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said Thursday he still won’t be proposing a budget for “weeks. . . .“ We have decided to defer a budget mark-up because of the high-level bipartisan leadership negotiations that are currently underway,” Conrad said in a written statement, “The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead.”

Conrad says that Democrats are waiting to hear the conclusions of President Biden’s panel on the deficit before they release their proposal. Of course, as Sen. Sessions has pointed out, the Democrats previously delayed the release of their budget plan by claiming they were waiting on the Gang of Six. So it’s getting difficult to take these excuses seriously anymore.

“It seems Senate Democrats are desperately trying to avoid having to present a budget to the American people,” Sessions said in a statement yesterday. “They know that the big spenders in their caucus prevent them from bringing forward a credible plan that both their party and the country can support.”

Sessions is right, but unfortunately the Democrats don’t really have an urgent reason to bring a budget proposal forward. Politically, they probably benefit more at the moment by attacking Ryan’s budget and hoping that the American people don’t notice their failure to propose their own. The question is, how long can this last? The Senate GOP has been in serious attack mode against Democratic foot-dragging recently, and if public anger starts growing then the Conrad will have no choice but to cave in and release a budget plan. But getting him to that point will not be easy.

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When Obama Became Bush (on Iraq)

Let’s all take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?

Readers will recall that Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy was built on his opposition to the Iraq war, and when he was in the U.S. Senate, he demanded that America end its involvement there, even though doing so would have led to an epic American defeat. Iraq was a “dangerous distraction,” Obama said, and he clearly believed it was destined to end badly.

As I documented in this essay for COMMENTARY, in late 2006 Obama argued for a “phased withdrawal” from Iraq. “We cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve,” he predicted.

On January 10, 2007, when President Bush announced his administration’s change in strategy in Iraq, popularly dubbed the “surge,” Obama declared he saw nothing in the plan that would “make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that’s taking place there.” A week later, he repeated the point emphatically: the surge strategy would “not prove to be one that changes the dynamics significantly.” Later in the same month, he summed up in these words his impression of the hearings on the new strategy held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “What was striking to me, in listening to all the testimony that was provided, was the almost near-unanimity that the President’s strategy will not work.”

On February 10, 2007, in announcing his presidential candidacy, Obama declared he had a plan “that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.”

In May 2007, Obama voted in the Senate against funding for combat operations. And in September, a mere three months after the final elements of the 30,000-strong surge forces had landed in Iraq, he declared that the moment had arrived to remove all of our combat troops “immediately.” “Not in six months or one year—now.”

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Let’s all take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?

Readers will recall that Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy was built on his opposition to the Iraq war, and when he was in the U.S. Senate, he demanded that America end its involvement there, even though doing so would have led to an epic American defeat. Iraq was a “dangerous distraction,” Obama said, and he clearly believed it was destined to end badly.

As I documented in this essay for COMMENTARY, in late 2006 Obama argued for a “phased withdrawal” from Iraq. “We cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve,” he predicted.

On January 10, 2007, when President Bush announced his administration’s change in strategy in Iraq, popularly dubbed the “surge,” Obama declared he saw nothing in the plan that would “make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that’s taking place there.” A week later, he repeated the point emphatically: the surge strategy would “not prove to be one that changes the dynamics significantly.” Later in the same month, he summed up in these words his impression of the hearings on the new strategy held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “What was striking to me, in listening to all the testimony that was provided, was the almost near-unanimity that the President’s strategy will not work.”

On February 10, 2007, in announcing his presidential candidacy, Obama declared he had a plan “that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.”

In May 2007, Obama voted in the Senate against funding for combat operations. And in September, a mere three months after the final elements of the 30,000-strong surge forces had landed in Iraq, he declared that the moment had arrived to remove all of our combat troops “immediately.” “Not in six months or one year—now.”

Iraq, it was commonly said, was riven by sectarian differences that could never be overcome. Democracy could never take root in its hard, unforgiving soil. And even if it could, it would be uprooted by anti-democratic forces within the country.

By the time Obama became president, the Iraq war had turned around so dramatically that it was obvious even to him. Obama wisely decided against a precipitous withdrawal of American forces; he instead decided to abide by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) his predecessor had negotiated. Nevertheless, Obama continued to denigrate what had been achieved in Iraq, repeatedly pointing to it as an American foreign policy failure, and in the process, misrepresenting the facts. For example, in his much ballyhooed Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, Obama said, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”

That statement was false. In the aftermath of deposing Saddam’s regime it was Iraqis – in the face of threats of violence from al Qaeda and home-grown insurgents – who went to the polls and, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of the American military and our diplomatic corps, began the long, hard work of creating the only functioning Arab democracy. All of which brings us to President Obama’s speech yesterday, where he said this:

Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.

In just a few years, then, Iraq has, for Barack Obama, gone from a strategic disaster to something of a model for the region. His words sound very much like those of President Bush, who told the United Nations in 2003, “Iraq as a dictatorship has great power to destabilize the Middle East. Iraq as a democracy will have great power to inspire the Middle East.”

The fact that Barack Obama is now (belatedly) embracing the views of his predecessor is something to be grateful for. To have a liberal, Democratic president declare that Iraq shows “the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy” and is “poised to play a key role in the region” is a very good thing for our country and the wider Middle East. And it will help to heal the divisions caused by the war.

But even in this moment of unity it is worth considering, even for a moment, the fact that if Barack Obama had had his way, Iraq would still be an enemy of America, led by a barbaric dictator with a fondness for war and for genocide. And if Obama’s counsel had been heeded after the war began, the surge would have been stopped and Iraq would now be convulsed by civil war, America would have left in defeat and disgrace, and al Qaeda—in the form of al Qaeda in Iraq—would have attained its greatest victory ever.

Obama will never in a thousand years be able to bring himself to credit George W. Bush for deposing Saddam, for challenging the pathologies within the Arab world, and for putting in place a new military strategy that led to a dramatic turn in fortunes of war. No matter; history has a way of taking care of such things.

In any event, the Iraq war was not, as people like Joe Klein repeatedly insisted, “probably the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history.” It was instead, in the words of the great Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, “a foreigner’s gift.” It was a gift bequeathed to the Iraqis at a great cost to America. But it looks to be a gift that has been received and one that we can hope will, over time, help tame the furies of the Arab world. So sayeth Barack Obama.

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Arab Indifference Shows the Pointlessness of Obama’s Speech

What did President Obama’s address on the Middle East accomplish? His goal was to expand America’s influence in the region and show the people there that the United States and its president identified with their struggle for freedom. But what did Obama actually accomplish with his speech? The first reports coming out of the Arab world make it clear that they aren’t buying what he’s selling.

As today’s New York Times roundup of opinion from the Arab world illustrates, Obama’s equivocation during the crucial moments when unrest was spreading means more to them than the fancy words he spoke at the State Department.

Some Americans, particularly neoconservatives, took satisfaction in the fact that Obama backtracked on his past indifference to democracy promotion as well as his opposition to President Bush’s embrace of this agenda, albeit without giving them or Bush any credit for having been right all along. But the Arab world views things a bit differently. All they see is a president who sat by and watched them bleed for their freedom in Egypt and Tunisia and now also in Syria without doing much, if anything, to help them. And they understand that it was France, not the United States that took the lead in the one Arab country where the West did intervene and that it was Obama’s dithering that prevented a quick defeat of Qaddafi. His professions of support for their freedom are considered either insincere or just too late.

Even more to the point, what comes across most from accounts of Arab reaction to Obama’s speech is the fact that not many people there care much about him. Whatever fascination they felt for him in the past seems to have faded.  That has to be a difficult pill for a man who sees himself in near messianic terms. His carefully parsed appeals to democracy and rights would have made a difference had he started speaking this way back in 2009 when his reaction to the repression of Iranian dissidents (which he properly acknowledged in his speech as the true start of the regional protests) was muted.

Nor are the Arabs excited much by the last portion of his speech that significantly tilted America towards the Palestinians and away from its ally Israel.  Though his words will be used to help fuel efforts to further isolate Israel, he didn’t go far enough to please Arab opinion. Obama did manage to alienate and weaken Israel but he will get little or no credit for this from Arab governments or public opinion.

This epitomizes his inept approach to foreign policy during his first two and a half years in the White House. Once again he succeeded in alienating friends while failing to impress those who are skeptical about the United States. It was a pointless speech by a man who has achieved a unique record of failure on foreign policy.

What did President Obama’s address on the Middle East accomplish? His goal was to expand America’s influence in the region and show the people there that the United States and its president identified with their struggle for freedom. But what did Obama actually accomplish with his speech? The first reports coming out of the Arab world make it clear that they aren’t buying what he’s selling.

As today’s New York Times roundup of opinion from the Arab world illustrates, Obama’s equivocation during the crucial moments when unrest was spreading means more to them than the fancy words he spoke at the State Department.

Some Americans, particularly neoconservatives, took satisfaction in the fact that Obama backtracked on his past indifference to democracy promotion as well as his opposition to President Bush’s embrace of this agenda, albeit without giving them or Bush any credit for having been right all along. But the Arab world views things a bit differently. All they see is a president who sat by and watched them bleed for their freedom in Egypt and Tunisia and now also in Syria without doing much, if anything, to help them. And they understand that it was France, not the United States that took the lead in the one Arab country where the West did intervene and that it was Obama’s dithering that prevented a quick defeat of Qaddafi. His professions of support for their freedom are considered either insincere or just too late.

Even more to the point, what comes across most from accounts of Arab reaction to Obama’s speech is the fact that not many people there care much about him. Whatever fascination they felt for him in the past seems to have faded.  That has to be a difficult pill for a man who sees himself in near messianic terms. His carefully parsed appeals to democracy and rights would have made a difference had he started speaking this way back in 2009 when his reaction to the repression of Iranian dissidents (which he properly acknowledged in his speech as the true start of the regional protests) was muted.

Nor are the Arabs excited much by the last portion of his speech that significantly tilted America towards the Palestinians and away from its ally Israel.  Though his words will be used to help fuel efforts to further isolate Israel, he didn’t go far enough to please Arab opinion. Obama did manage to alienate and weaken Israel but he will get little or no credit for this from Arab governments or public opinion.

This epitomizes his inept approach to foreign policy during his first two and a half years in the White House. Once again he succeeded in alienating friends while failing to impress those who are skeptical about the United States. It was a pointless speech by a man who has achieved a unique record of failure on foreign policy.

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Obama Says Peace Isn’t Necessary for Palestinian Statehood

Several Contentions contributors commented yesterday on President Barack Obama’s call for a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines,” which they correctly identified as both radical departing from previous U.S. policy and severely undermining Israel’s negotiating position. But that was far from the worst element of Obama’s speech. Much worse was his endorsement of what Noah Pollak aptly identified this week as “moderate” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s real goal: not a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, but a Palestinian state at war with Israel.

The key passage comes just after Obama called for a “full and phased” Israeli withdrawal on a fixed timetable (“the duration of this transition period must be agreed”) in exchange for “robust” security provisions:

I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.  But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

In other words, Israel should withdraw fully to the 1967 lines and not get peace in exchange, because the two thorniest issues, Jerusalem and the refugees, will remain to be resolved.

Moreover, having done so, Israel will be left with no bargaining chips with which to obtain Palestinian concessions on these issues. Having already ceded the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, what is it supposed to offer them in exchange for ceding their demand that all 4.8 million refugees and their descendents relocate to Israel so as to eradicate the Jewish state demographically? And what incentive would the Palestinians have for waiving this demand? Having already obtained every inch of post-1967 Israel for nothing, why shouldn’t they think pre-1967 Israel is attainable too?

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Several Contentions contributors commented yesterday on President Barack Obama’s call for a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines,” which they correctly identified as both radical departing from previous U.S. policy and severely undermining Israel’s negotiating position. But that was far from the worst element of Obama’s speech. Much worse was his endorsement of what Noah Pollak aptly identified this week as “moderate” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s real goal: not a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, but a Palestinian state at war with Israel.

The key passage comes just after Obama called for a “full and phased” Israeli withdrawal on a fixed timetable (“the duration of this transition period must be agreed”) in exchange for “robust” security provisions:

I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.  But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

In other words, Israel should withdraw fully to the 1967 lines and not get peace in exchange, because the two thorniest issues, Jerusalem and the refugees, will remain to be resolved.

Moreover, having done so, Israel will be left with no bargaining chips with which to obtain Palestinian concessions on these issues. Having already ceded the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, what is it supposed to offer them in exchange for ceding their demand that all 4.8 million refugees and their descendents relocate to Israel so as to eradicate the Jewish state demographically? And what incentive would the Palestinians have for waiving this demand? Having already obtained every inch of post-1967 Israel for nothing, why shouldn’t they think pre-1967 Israel is attainable too?

Obama didn’t even promise that America would back Israel on these issues. He adopted the Palestinians’ position on the 1967 lines, but he didn’t adopt a single Israeli position in the speech. He didn’t say the refugees would have to move to Palestine rather than Israel. He didn’t say Israel should retain Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem or Jewish holy sites. He didn’t say Israel should maintain a military presence along the Jordan River. He didn’t say Israel should keep the major settlement blocs, or even imply it: He specified “mutually agreed swaps,” meaning only those Abbas is willing to accept — and Abbas has consistently refused to agree to Israel retaining the blocs.

He didn’t even insist that the new Fatah-Hamas unity government accept the Quartet’s conditions: recognizing Israel, renouncing terror and honoring previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. He merely demanded an unspecified “credible answer” to the question of how Israel can negotiate with a party “unwilling to recognize [its] right to exist,” thereby implying that such a “credible answer” is possible even if Hamas persists in this unwillingness.

His stated opposition to Abbas’s plan to seek unilateral UN recognition a Palestinian state in September was also mere lip service. As Egypt’s UN ambassador perceptively noted, the speech will actually help Abbas win support for this move. After all, if the U.S. president has just said a Palestinian state should be created in the 1967 lines without having to make peace with Israel or abandon its plans for Israel’s destruction, why should other countries cavil at the notion?

In short, this speech destroyed any prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace ever being achieved. If the president of the United States says peace isn’t necessary for statehood, the Palestinians certainly aren’t going to contradict him.

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GOP “Wedge” on Israel May Motivate Evangelicals More than Jews

During each of the past few election cycles, Republicans have sought to make inroads in the Jewish vote by highlighting their party’s strong support for Israel. Those efforts to use Israel as a “wedge” issue largely failed. The question that some observers are asking this morning is whether President Obama’s latest shot fired across the bow of Israel’s government will be enough to motivate a significant number of Jewish voters to support the GOP next year. But while Obama’s move may motivate some Americans to support a given candidate, the votes up for grabs may not be Jewish.

By demanding that Israel accept the 1967 lines as the starting point for peace, Obama tilted the diplomatic field significantly in the direction of the Palestinians. Moreover, there is no doubt that the timing of the statement, coming only one day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to arrive in the United States, was intended to humiliate the Israeli.

Republican presidential hopefuls weren’t slow to pick up on this point.  Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and even Ron Paul all issued statements yesterday taking issue with Obama’s gift to the Palestinians. For Romney, Obama had not only “disrespected Israel” but was “throwing Israel under the bus.” Michele Bachmann declared that the president “had betrayed our friend and ally Israel.” Tim Pawlenty not only termed the emphasis on the 1967 borders “a dangerous demand,” but also stated “Jerusalem must never be re-divided. But can any of these candidates make significant inroads among supporters of Israel ?

It needs to be understood that the majority of Jewish voters who are both ardent liberals and partisan Democrats won’t vote for a Republican under just about any circumstances. A Democrat doesn’t have to be more pro-Israel than his opponent to get their support; he just has to be considered plausibly pro-Israel. That’s a low standard but it’s one that allowed Obama to get 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. But outside of the hardcore left, a negative record on Israel would still be a handicap, depressing fundraising and losing centrist votes. Although Obama’s apologists will claim he still meets that standard, this latest swipe at Jerusalem will not be forgotten and will cost him some money and votes though probably not enough to significantly influence the outcome in 2012

While many observers will dismiss the GOP contenders’ stands on the 1967 borders as mere pandering, the fact is the votes that are up for grabs as a result of this controversy are probably not those of disillusioned Jewish Democrats. Many evangelical and other conservative Christians are devoted friends of Israel and consider this, alongside social issues such as abortion, a litmus test for candidates in a way that most Jews do not. And it is the members of this group, who vote in large numbers in Republican primaries and caucuses that will more readily influence the outcome of those contest than any Jewish support.

So rather than focus on whether the GOP has a chance to win over the Jews, it might be wiser to ponder which of the candidates is best placed to demonstrate to Christians their unswerving support for Israel.

During each of the past few election cycles, Republicans have sought to make inroads in the Jewish vote by highlighting their party’s strong support for Israel. Those efforts to use Israel as a “wedge” issue largely failed. The question that some observers are asking this morning is whether President Obama’s latest shot fired across the bow of Israel’s government will be enough to motivate a significant number of Jewish voters to support the GOP next year. But while Obama’s move may motivate some Americans to support a given candidate, the votes up for grabs may not be Jewish.

By demanding that Israel accept the 1967 lines as the starting point for peace, Obama tilted the diplomatic field significantly in the direction of the Palestinians. Moreover, there is no doubt that the timing of the statement, coming only one day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to arrive in the United States, was intended to humiliate the Israeli.

Republican presidential hopefuls weren’t slow to pick up on this point.  Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and even Ron Paul all issued statements yesterday taking issue with Obama’s gift to the Palestinians. For Romney, Obama had not only “disrespected Israel” but was “throwing Israel under the bus.” Michele Bachmann declared that the president “had betrayed our friend and ally Israel.” Tim Pawlenty not only termed the emphasis on the 1967 borders “a dangerous demand,” but also stated “Jerusalem must never be re-divided. But can any of these candidates make significant inroads among supporters of Israel ?

It needs to be understood that the majority of Jewish voters who are both ardent liberals and partisan Democrats won’t vote for a Republican under just about any circumstances. A Democrat doesn’t have to be more pro-Israel than his opponent to get their support; he just has to be considered plausibly pro-Israel. That’s a low standard but it’s one that allowed Obama to get 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. But outside of the hardcore left, a negative record on Israel would still be a handicap, depressing fundraising and losing centrist votes. Although Obama’s apologists will claim he still meets that standard, this latest swipe at Jerusalem will not be forgotten and will cost him some money and votes though probably not enough to significantly influence the outcome in 2012

While many observers will dismiss the GOP contenders’ stands on the 1967 borders as mere pandering, the fact is the votes that are up for grabs as a result of this controversy are probably not those of disillusioned Jewish Democrats. Many evangelical and other conservative Christians are devoted friends of Israel and consider this, alongside social issues such as abortion, a litmus test for candidates in a way that most Jews do not. And it is the members of this group, who vote in large numbers in Republican primaries and caucuses that will more readily influence the outcome of those contest than any Jewish support.

So rather than focus on whether the GOP has a chance to win over the Jews, it might be wiser to ponder which of the candidates is best placed to demonstrate to Christians their unswerving support for Israel.

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Arabs and Turkey Should Worry About the Precedent Obama Has Set on Borders

Many Arab states and Turkey are already cheering President Obama’s decision to endorse Palestinian territorial demands regardless of past American commitments and the direction of past negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  They should beware the precedent, because as every Arab leader and Turkey knows—but few care to acknowledge—is that the Middle East is full of secession struggles.

First and foremost is the Kurdish struggle for independence from Turkey.  The Kurdistan Workers Party—better known by their Kurdish acronym the PKK—has waged a terrorist struggle since 1984 which has claimed far more lives in that time than Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians.  If President Obama is willing to push negotiations aside, declare his support for regional peoples’ self-determination, and endorse the borders of a future Palestinian state including that state’s tendentious claim to Jerusalem, will some future present recognize Kurdistan’s right to an independent state in Anatolia with Diyarbakir as its capital?

In one of my favorite episodes of Family Guy, the main character Peter Griffin takes advantage of a zoning irregularity to declare his home and backyard an independent country and hence is born the Republic of Petoria.  Whenever a country is named after a person, you pretty much know it’s an artificial country.  So, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia, a country named after the Saud family after it conquered several other countries by force to unite a portion of the Arabian Peninsula by the sword. While diplomats and academics often talk about the struggle for identity and power between the Saudi ruling family and the religious clergy, the more interesting struggle for identity involves the conquered regions. Read More

Many Arab states and Turkey are already cheering President Obama’s decision to endorse Palestinian territorial demands regardless of past American commitments and the direction of past negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  They should beware the precedent, because as every Arab leader and Turkey knows—but few care to acknowledge—is that the Middle East is full of secession struggles.

First and foremost is the Kurdish struggle for independence from Turkey.  The Kurdistan Workers Party—better known by their Kurdish acronym the PKK—has waged a terrorist struggle since 1984 which has claimed far more lives in that time than Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians.  If President Obama is willing to push negotiations aside, declare his support for regional peoples’ self-determination, and endorse the borders of a future Palestinian state including that state’s tendentious claim to Jerusalem, will some future present recognize Kurdistan’s right to an independent state in Anatolia with Diyarbakir as its capital?

In one of my favorite episodes of Family Guy, the main character Peter Griffin takes advantage of a zoning irregularity to declare his home and backyard an independent country and hence is born the Republic of Petoria.  Whenever a country is named after a person, you pretty much know it’s an artificial country.  So, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia, a country named after the Saud family after it conquered several other countries by force to unite a portion of the Arabian Peninsula by the sword. While diplomats and academics often talk about the struggle for identity and power between the Saudi ruling family and the religious clergy, the more interesting struggle for identity involves the conquered regions.

Take Hijaz, for example: As Mai Yamani, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies has pointed out, the Hijaz still maintains its own national and religious identity despite the Saudi and Wahabi efforts to crush it.  Could some future president – one less beholden to Saudi Arabia than our recent presidents have been – recognize Hijaz’s national aspirations with Jeddah as its capital?

Let’s move south: Missed in the headlines first of the Houthi rebellion, then of Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen, and finally of the freedom protests in the country at the base of the Arabian peninsula is the fact the separatist sentiment has not since the civil war of 1994 run so high in South Yemen.  Now let’s go to North Africa: In the Kabyle region of Algeria, many Berbers (who outnumber Palestinians) are increasingly asserting their national identity.  While an independent Palestine at this point in time would likely be a terrorist state, the Kabyles embrace secularism, and so support for their national aspirations could actually be in American interests.  Perhaps some future White House will recognize their homeland?  With up to 40 percent of the Algerian capital Algiers being Berber, perhaps Obama or his successor can divide that capital by fiat?

For many years, Arab leaders and Turkey have accused the United States of acting inconsistently.  Indeed, we have.  Moral equivalence is a poor foundation for foreign policy.  Far more important than equal treatment of all countries is consistent support for our allies—Israel, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Poland, Georgia, Australia, South Korea, Colombia, among many others—against terrorist or rogue threats they may face. Should Obama wish instead to apply consistency to self-determination struggles, he may not only legitimize those movements which have embraced terrorism as a tool, but he will also open a Pandora’s box which many of his cheerleaders among Arab leaders and their fellow-travelers in Turkey will come to regret.

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Can We Listen to That Obama Tape Now?

The White House billed President Obama’s speech yesterday as the American response to the Arab spring, and a statement of a new policy for the new Middle East.  The Arab revolutions which began in Tunisia and have extended to the region’s other dictatorships—Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—ended the popular belief among so many Washington officials and diplomats that the region’s instability revolved around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And yet, with one statement, President Obama has managed to shift conversation across the region and, indeed, across the world from liberty in Libya and the slaughter in Syria back to the past quagmire of the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock

Just as with Obama’s 2009 declarations in which the president acted more negotiating and has a zoning commissioner in Jerusalem than a peacemaker, Obama’s speech has also set back the cause of peace.  With the White House casting its lot with maximalist Arab state demands over what remains essentially disputed rather than simply occupied territories, Obama has empowered the Palestinians and the more radical Arab bloc to stop negotiating and to harden their demands on other issues, such as the right of return.  Certainly, if Obama was truly interested in a negotiated, lasting peace settlement, he has committed an own goal.  It’s times like these when I remember the Los Angeles Times has a tape of candidate Obama at a party feting former PLO media spokesman and University of Chicago buddy Rashid Khalidi. The Los Angeles Times refused to release their tape.  I certainly wonder whether it foreshadowed the positions Obama took yesterday.

The White House billed President Obama’s speech yesterday as the American response to the Arab spring, and a statement of a new policy for the new Middle East.  The Arab revolutions which began in Tunisia and have extended to the region’s other dictatorships—Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—ended the popular belief among so many Washington officials and diplomats that the region’s instability revolved around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And yet, with one statement, President Obama has managed to shift conversation across the region and, indeed, across the world from liberty in Libya and the slaughter in Syria back to the past quagmire of the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock

Just as with Obama’s 2009 declarations in which the president acted more negotiating and has a zoning commissioner in Jerusalem than a peacemaker, Obama’s speech has also set back the cause of peace.  With the White House casting its lot with maximalist Arab state demands over what remains essentially disputed rather than simply occupied territories, Obama has empowered the Palestinians and the more radical Arab bloc to stop negotiating and to harden their demands on other issues, such as the right of return.  Certainly, if Obama was truly interested in a negotiated, lasting peace settlement, he has committed an own goal.  It’s times like these when I remember the Los Angeles Times has a tape of candidate Obama at a party feting former PLO media spokesman and University of Chicago buddy Rashid Khalidi. The Los Angeles Times refused to release their tape.  I certainly wonder whether it foreshadowed the positions Obama took yesterday.

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Something Definitely New: Experts Weigh in on Obama’s Statement on Israeli Borders

If President Obama didn’t fundamentally break with past U.S. diplomacy towards Israel, abandoning U.S. assurances about “defensible borders” in favor of a formulation pushing Israel back to its pre-1967 borders plus land swaps, that’s going to be news to a lot of people.

It will be news to veteran diplomat David Aaron Miller, who stated that “no American president has ever used this formulation before.” Ditto for Obama surrogate and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, who celebrated how the speech altered U.S. policy in fundamental ways. And someone should probably reassure Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was moved to immediately issue a blunt and hastily written pushback to the President’s statement and to call on the White House to embrace the “defensible borders” and settlement bloc commitments spelled out in the Bush letters – which for some reason the Israeli government believes the White House doesn’t.

There’s also Robert Satloff, Washington Institute executive director and Howard P. Berkowitz chair in U.S. Middle East policy, who posted a particularly explicit and expansive description of how the President’s speech “constitute[d] a major departure from long-standing U.S. policy… [moving] substantially toward the Palestinian position.” On the specific issue of borders, Satloff outlined how Obama’s position broke with four decades of U.S. peacemaking:

President Obama is the first sitting president to say that the final borders should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” (The Clinton Parameters — which, it is important to note, President Clinton officially withdrew before he left office — did not mention the 1967 borders, but did mention “swaps and other territorial arrangements.”) The Obama formulation concretizes a move away from four decades of U.S. policy based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which has always interpreted calls for an Israeli withdrawal to a “secure and recognized” border as not synonymous with the pre-1967 boundaries. The idea of land swaps, which may very well be a solution that the parties themselves choose to pursue, sounds very different when endorsed by the president of the United States. In effect, it means that the U.S. view is that resolution of the territorial aspect of the conflict can only be achieved if Israel cedes territory it held even before the 1967 war.

Satloff goes on to explain how Obama broke with the Clinton parameters on Israel’s security requirements, dropped the Bush June 2002 benchmarks on Palestinian democratization, and – broadly – emphasized Palestinian concerns while leaving out core issues on which the Palestinians would be expected to make compromises. Read More

If President Obama didn’t fundamentally break with past U.S. diplomacy towards Israel, abandoning U.S. assurances about “defensible borders” in favor of a formulation pushing Israel back to its pre-1967 borders plus land swaps, that’s going to be news to a lot of people.

It will be news to veteran diplomat David Aaron Miller, who stated that “no American president has ever used this formulation before.” Ditto for Obama surrogate and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, who celebrated how the speech altered U.S. policy in fundamental ways. And someone should probably reassure Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was moved to immediately issue a blunt and hastily written pushback to the President’s statement and to call on the White House to embrace the “defensible borders” and settlement bloc commitments spelled out in the Bush letters – which for some reason the Israeli government believes the White House doesn’t.

There’s also Robert Satloff, Washington Institute executive director and Howard P. Berkowitz chair in U.S. Middle East policy, who posted a particularly explicit and expansive description of how the President’s speech “constitute[d] a major departure from long-standing U.S. policy… [moving] substantially toward the Palestinian position.” On the specific issue of borders, Satloff outlined how Obama’s position broke with four decades of U.S. peacemaking:

President Obama is the first sitting president to say that the final borders should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” (The Clinton Parameters — which, it is important to note, President Clinton officially withdrew before he left office — did not mention the 1967 borders, but did mention “swaps and other territorial arrangements.”) The Obama formulation concretizes a move away from four decades of U.S. policy based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which has always interpreted calls for an Israeli withdrawal to a “secure and recognized” border as not synonymous with the pre-1967 boundaries. The idea of land swaps, which may very well be a solution that the parties themselves choose to pursue, sounds very different when endorsed by the president of the United States. In effect, it means that the U.S. view is that resolution of the territorial aspect of the conflict can only be achieved if Israel cedes territory it held even before the 1967 war.

Satloff goes on to explain how Obama broke with the Clinton parameters on Israel’s security requirements, dropped the Bush June 2002 benchmarks on Palestinian democratization, and – broadly – emphasized Palestinian concerns while leaving out core issues on which the Palestinians would be expected to make compromises.

Keep in mind that all of this is happening against the backdrop of the recent Fatah-Hamas merger, which should have counseled a move in Israel’s direction. Evaluated objectively, bracketing ideology, the administration’s policy of encouraging Israeli concessions was crafted for a political environment in which Fatah controlled the Palestinian Authority. In the aftermath of a Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, that political environment doesn’t exist any more. Had the President stuck to the status quo – neglecting to abandon four decades of U.S. diplomacy – it would have seemed merely obtuse. The right would be saying that the President didn’t recognize how the situation on the ground had changed, the left would be saying that the President was sophisticated showing Fatah that there was a benefit to be gained from splitting with Hamas, and everyone would go back to their corners.

Instead the President chose now to codify “the 1967 borders,” after the unity agreement and after Abbas signaled as well as any human can that he was rejecting the White House. Instead of moving the Palestinian back to the table, this repeats the White House’s 2009 mistake on settlements. Unable to be less pro-Palestinian than the US President, the Palestinians now have to take this new position as their starting point. Since it’s a starting point that’s unacceptable to the Israelis, negotiations will remain moribund.

If this wasn’t just a continuation of this White House’s hostility toward the diplomatic sensibilities and security requirements of our Israeli allies, it’d be inexplicable.

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