Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 22, 2011

“The Conflict Is Not about the 1967 Lines”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was outspoken in his criticism of President Obama’s speech last Thursday, and he took another swipe at the president during an address to AIPAC this evening. Cantor said that the Palestinians refuse to accept Israel’s existence because they have “a culture infused with resentment and hatred” of the Jewish state.

“And this is the root of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. It is not about the ’67 lines,” said Cantor, prompting an extended standing ovation. The congressman didn’t mention Obama directly, but his statements were clearly aimed at the president. “There is a time for following; but now is the time to lead—from the front,” said Cantor, an allusion to Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy.

The enthusiastic response to Cantor was also a notable contrast to the more tepid reception that Obama’s speech received. The audience was polite during Obama’s speech, but the robust applause for Cantor highlighted how uneasy the AIPAC crowd is with the president’s position on Israel right now.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was outspoken in his criticism of President Obama’s speech last Thursday, and he took another swipe at the president during an address to AIPAC this evening. Cantor said that the Palestinians refuse to accept Israel’s existence because they have “a culture infused with resentment and hatred” of the Jewish state.

“And this is the root of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. It is not about the ’67 lines,” said Cantor, prompting an extended standing ovation. The congressman didn’t mention Obama directly, but his statements were clearly aimed at the president. “There is a time for following; but now is the time to lead—from the front,” said Cantor, an allusion to Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy.

The enthusiastic response to Cantor was also a notable contrast to the more tepid reception that Obama’s speech received. The audience was polite during Obama’s speech, but the robust applause for Cantor highlighted how uneasy the AIPAC crowd is with the president’s position on Israel right now.

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Obama: My Position on 1967 Borders Was “Misrepresented”

President Obama claimed that his position on the 1967 borders was taken out of context on Thursday, and said that the Israelis and Palestinians “will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

“It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation,” said Obama at the AIPAC policy conference today. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

But if Obama’s position was taken out of context, he’s the one to blame. It was his staffers who were telling the New York Times and other media outlets that there was going to be a major “surprise” in his Thursday address, and suggested that it was related to Israel. With literally nothing else newsworthy in the speech besides his 1967 border comments, obviously reporters were going to run with that story.

Obama clarified his position today, which will probably do a little to mollify the pro-Israel community. But it seems unlikely that he was unaware of how his statements would be interpreted on Thursday. Israel’s supporters could not be blamed for remaining uneasy.

President Obama claimed that his position on the 1967 borders was taken out of context on Thursday, and said that the Israelis and Palestinians “will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

“It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation,” said Obama at the AIPAC policy conference today. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

But if Obama’s position was taken out of context, he’s the one to blame. It was his staffers who were telling the New York Times and other media outlets that there was going to be a major “surprise” in his Thursday address, and suggested that it was related to Israel. With literally nothing else newsworthy in the speech besides his 1967 border comments, obviously reporters were going to run with that story.

Obama clarified his position today, which will probably do a little to mollify the pro-Israel community. But it seems unlikely that he was unaware of how his statements would be interpreted on Thursday. Israel’s supporters could not be blamed for remaining uneasy.

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So Does Obama Want Israel to Negotiate With Hamas or Not?

At the AIPAC policy conference today, President Obama created even more confusion over where he stands on Israel. While the president acknowledged that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate a peace deal with a terrorist organization like Hamas, he immediately suggested that Israel needs to try anyway.

“No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction,” said Obama. “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements.”

He then added, “Yet, no matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under the current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option. The status quo is unsustainable.”

So which is it? Does Obama understand that Israel cannot negotiate with a terrorist organization bent on its destruction? Or does he believe that Israel still needs to start negotiations “under the current circumstances”—i.e. with a unity government that includes Hamas?

This odd contradiction wasn’t missed by the audience, which sat in stony silence during this portion of the president’s speech. The fact is, calling for negotiations under the current circumstances means that Israel must work with Hamas. If this is Obama’s position—as it appears to be—then he needs to make this clear. Because while his statements on the 1967 borders on Thursday were controversial, asking Israel to work for a peace deal with a terrorist organization is another level of outrageous.

At the AIPAC policy conference today, President Obama created even more confusion over where he stands on Israel. While the president acknowledged that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate a peace deal with a terrorist organization like Hamas, he immediately suggested that Israel needs to try anyway.

“No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction,” said Obama. “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements.”

He then added, “Yet, no matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under the current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option. The status quo is unsustainable.”

So which is it? Does Obama understand that Israel cannot negotiate with a terrorist organization bent on its destruction? Or does he believe that Israel still needs to start negotiations “under the current circumstances”—i.e. with a unity government that includes Hamas?

This odd contradiction wasn’t missed by the audience, which sat in stony silence during this portion of the president’s speech. The fact is, calling for negotiations under the current circumstances means that Israel must work with Hamas. If this is Obama’s position—as it appears to be—then he needs to make this clear. Because while his statements on the 1967 borders on Thursday were controversial, asking Israel to work for a peace deal with a terrorist organization is another level of outrageous.

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Obama’s False Choice

In his address to AIPAC this morning, President Obama has doubled down on the points he made in his speech on Thursday. After a lengthy, and not entirely unjustified defense of his administration’s record of support for Israel’s security, he continued talking down to the Jewish state and its government as if he knew better than they about the situation in the Middle East.

Following the talking points that the administration has been furiously spinning since Thursday, Obama attempted to explain that there was nothing original or new in his attempt to lay down the 1967 lines as the starting point for future talks. It is true, as he asserted that his line bout “mutually agreed upon swaps” of territory means that the “borders will be different.” But contrary to his claim that this is what past administrations also support, the Bush 2004 letter let it be known that the United States supported Israel’s claims on Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs. Obama is neutral about Israel’s borders. That is why the Palestinians view his support of the 1967 borders as a green light for them to refuse to talk unless Israel agrees to surrender every inch of territory.

Even worse, Obama’s lecture about why Israel must make further concessions in spite of Arab intransigence was condescending and somewhat misleading. Obama said that demographics and technology mean the status quo can’t be sustained and implicitly accused Israel of “procrastination.” But Israel has already offered the Palestinians a state in virtually all of the West Bank, part of Jerusalem and Gaza and been turned down twice. Even the supposedly right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu has made its commitment to a two-state solution clear. Obama says Israel can’t wait “another decade or two or three decades” to make peace. But Israel has been trying to make peace for 63 years. The world may be “moving too fast” to wait for peace but why must he lecture the Israelis when it is the Palestinians who refuse to talk, let alone recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn?

Although Obama rightly declared that the United States would oppose attempts to bypass the peace process via the United Nations, his mention of the 1967 borders will be used, as it has already by the Palestinians, to buttress their attempt to get recognition for an independent state inside those lines with no recognition of Israel.

Like all Obama speeches, the president presented a false choice in which he said the “easy thing” would be to say nothing about the peace process rather than to confront it as he has done. Democratic Party donors will have the final word on how foolish his attempt to ambush Netanyahu this past week. But the real false choice is the notion that it is somehow in Israel’s power to magically create peace. That decision has always been in the hands of the Palestinians and the Arab world. So long as they ally themselves with terrorists and refuse to negotiate and to demand a “right of return” which would destroy Israel (and which Obama again failed to condemn) there will be no peace.

In his address to AIPAC this morning, President Obama has doubled down on the points he made in his speech on Thursday. After a lengthy, and not entirely unjustified defense of his administration’s record of support for Israel’s security, he continued talking down to the Jewish state and its government as if he knew better than they about the situation in the Middle East.

Following the talking points that the administration has been furiously spinning since Thursday, Obama attempted to explain that there was nothing original or new in his attempt to lay down the 1967 lines as the starting point for future talks. It is true, as he asserted that his line bout “mutually agreed upon swaps” of territory means that the “borders will be different.” But contrary to his claim that this is what past administrations also support, the Bush 2004 letter let it be known that the United States supported Israel’s claims on Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs. Obama is neutral about Israel’s borders. That is why the Palestinians view his support of the 1967 borders as a green light for them to refuse to talk unless Israel agrees to surrender every inch of territory.

Even worse, Obama’s lecture about why Israel must make further concessions in spite of Arab intransigence was condescending and somewhat misleading. Obama said that demographics and technology mean the status quo can’t be sustained and implicitly accused Israel of “procrastination.” But Israel has already offered the Palestinians a state in virtually all of the West Bank, part of Jerusalem and Gaza and been turned down twice. Even the supposedly right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu has made its commitment to a two-state solution clear. Obama says Israel can’t wait “another decade or two or three decades” to make peace. But Israel has been trying to make peace for 63 years. The world may be “moving too fast” to wait for peace but why must he lecture the Israelis when it is the Palestinians who refuse to talk, let alone recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn?

Although Obama rightly declared that the United States would oppose attempts to bypass the peace process via the United Nations, his mention of the 1967 borders will be used, as it has already by the Palestinians, to buttress their attempt to get recognition for an independent state inside those lines with no recognition of Israel.

Like all Obama speeches, the president presented a false choice in which he said the “easy thing” would be to say nothing about the peace process rather than to confront it as he has done. Democratic Party donors will have the final word on how foolish his attempt to ambush Netanyahu this past week. But the real false choice is the notion that it is somehow in Israel’s power to magically create peace. That decision has always been in the hands of the Palestinians and the Arab world. So long as they ally themselves with terrorists and refuse to negotiate and to demand a “right of return” which would destroy Israel (and which Obama again failed to condemn) there will be no peace.

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Palestinians Set Obama’s 1967 Border Guidelines as Precondition to Talks

There have been a lot of arguments and counterarguments regarding President Obama’s statement that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should proceed using Israel’s 1949 armistice lines as a starting point. Some claim that the position reflects decades of U.S. policy. Others claim that it’s a break from past administrations but is consistent with this one’s peacemaking. Yet others claim that it goes beyond all previous American stances, and that it represents a “borders first” approach that hasn’t been seen in the Oslo era. For each of these claims there are also arguments on both sides—given that the Obama speech stipulated this and not that—predicting what effect will be had on the peace process.

If only there was an objective way to evaluate how Obama’s demands on Israel are playing out in the context of Middle East diplomacy. Some way to check—again, objectively—whether as this morning there are more barriers or less barriers to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Quantitatively, as it were.

Conveniently, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has now released a statement, transforming Obama’s border guidelines into preconditions for renewed talks. Until recently the Palestinians had no problem negotiating without those preconditions. It was widely recognized that the Palestinians were trying to get to Obama’s position—a final status agreement structured around the 1949 lines plus land swaps—but that they would have to negotiate to it and make concessions along the way. Now Erekat is insisting that “there is no point talking about a peace process” unless Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts the final Palestinian position as everyone’s starting position. Since that’s not going to happen under any circumstances—nor should it—we are again in a situation where President Obama’s de-facto advocacy for the Palestinian cause has made peace more difficult to achieve.

All of this nonsense was easy to explicitly predict. This film has played before. In 2009 the White House decided that construction in Israeli settlement blocs so eroded Palestinian trust that the poor dears were unable to negotiate. The Palestinians, who had for years been quite able to negotiate while that construction continued, were forced to follow President Obama’s lead and insist upon a settlement freeze as a new precondition. They couldn’t let the U.S. president out-Palestine the Palestinian president. Abbas would later complain that Obama’s settlement stance came from the White House and pushed the Palestinians out on a limb—before leaving them there. Three times.

At this point, I’m genuinely unsure whether the Palestinians are pleased with how Obama is tilting negotiations in their direction, or just kind of confused about what it is that he thinks he’s doing.

There have been a lot of arguments and counterarguments regarding President Obama’s statement that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should proceed using Israel’s 1949 armistice lines as a starting point. Some claim that the position reflects decades of U.S. policy. Others claim that it’s a break from past administrations but is consistent with this one’s peacemaking. Yet others claim that it goes beyond all previous American stances, and that it represents a “borders first” approach that hasn’t been seen in the Oslo era. For each of these claims there are also arguments on both sides—given that the Obama speech stipulated this and not that—predicting what effect will be had on the peace process.

If only there was an objective way to evaluate how Obama’s demands on Israel are playing out in the context of Middle East diplomacy. Some way to check—again, objectively—whether as this morning there are more barriers or less barriers to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Quantitatively, as it were.

Conveniently, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has now released a statement, transforming Obama’s border guidelines into preconditions for renewed talks. Until recently the Palestinians had no problem negotiating without those preconditions. It was widely recognized that the Palestinians were trying to get to Obama’s position—a final status agreement structured around the 1949 lines plus land swaps—but that they would have to negotiate to it and make concessions along the way. Now Erekat is insisting that “there is no point talking about a peace process” unless Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts the final Palestinian position as everyone’s starting position. Since that’s not going to happen under any circumstances—nor should it—we are again in a situation where President Obama’s de-facto advocacy for the Palestinian cause has made peace more difficult to achieve.

All of this nonsense was easy to explicitly predict. This film has played before. In 2009 the White House decided that construction in Israeli settlement blocs so eroded Palestinian trust that the poor dears were unable to negotiate. The Palestinians, who had for years been quite able to negotiate while that construction continued, were forced to follow President Obama’s lead and insist upon a settlement freeze as a new precondition. They couldn’t let the U.S. president out-Palestine the Palestinian president. Abbas would later complain that Obama’s settlement stance came from the White House and pushed the Palestinians out on a limb—before leaving them there. Three times.

At this point, I’m genuinely unsure whether the Palestinians are pleased with how Obama is tilting negotiations in their direction, or just kind of confused about what it is that he thinks he’s doing.

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If Democrats Are Less Pro-Israel, Is That Bibi’s Fault, or Obama’s?

Jeffrey Goldberg continues to insist today that Prime Minister Netanyahu is “needlessly alienating” the United States. Earlier Goldberg expressed astonishment at Netanyahu’s initial negative reaction to President Obama’s talk about forcing Israel to accept the 1967 borders as the baseline for negotiations, so the Israeli’s chutzpah in giving a lecture about Jewish history during a White House photo-op was bound to shock him as well.

Goldberg is wrong when he says that Obama gave Israel “two enormous gifts” in his Middle East speech: “A denunciation of the radical Islamist terror group Hamas, and a promise to fight unilateral Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations recognition as an independent state.” These are not unimportant points, but they are not “gifts.” If the United States remains serious about fighting terror, how can it make an exception for the Iranian ally Hamas? And while Israel has much at stake in stopping the Palestinian campaign in the UN, so does the United States.

Goldberg also dismisses the fact that, as I wrote earlier today, Netanyahu will be cheered at both the AIPAC conference and in his speech to Congress on Tuesday. Despite the evidence of its continuing strength and influence, he claims AIPAC is losing both and, without any evidence to support his conclusion, says most Jews don’t agree with the umbrella lobbying group.

But he might be right about one thing; that support for Israel is declining among Democrats. That’s a position that the many influential Jewish Democrats who are angry about Obama’s slap at Israel would dispute. It’s also one that people like House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who moments ago told the AIPAC conference that peace in the Middle East had to reflect reality on the ground (a direct riposte to Obama’s speech) would also disagree with.

But if it is true, and to listen to some on the left wing of the Democratic Party, you would have to agree, then who is to blame?

Is it the fault of Israel for speaking up in its own defense when its vital security interests are threatened and past American promises are trashed? Or is the behavior of President Obama who has continually picked fights with Israel’s democratically elected government from his first days in office? After Obama’s carefully plotted, though unsuccessful ambush of Netanyahu, it would not be unusual if many Democrats were to get the message that the head of their party has a problem with the Jewish state. If, as Goldberg insists, “Support for Israel (and for the Netanyahu government in particular) is slowly waning among Democrats,” then it is Obama’s doing not that of Netanyahu.

Jeffrey Goldberg continues to insist today that Prime Minister Netanyahu is “needlessly alienating” the United States. Earlier Goldberg expressed astonishment at Netanyahu’s initial negative reaction to President Obama’s talk about forcing Israel to accept the 1967 borders as the baseline for negotiations, so the Israeli’s chutzpah in giving a lecture about Jewish history during a White House photo-op was bound to shock him as well.

Goldberg is wrong when he says that Obama gave Israel “two enormous gifts” in his Middle East speech: “A denunciation of the radical Islamist terror group Hamas, and a promise to fight unilateral Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations recognition as an independent state.” These are not unimportant points, but they are not “gifts.” If the United States remains serious about fighting terror, how can it make an exception for the Iranian ally Hamas? And while Israel has much at stake in stopping the Palestinian campaign in the UN, so does the United States.

Goldberg also dismisses the fact that, as I wrote earlier today, Netanyahu will be cheered at both the AIPAC conference and in his speech to Congress on Tuesday. Despite the evidence of its continuing strength and influence, he claims AIPAC is losing both and, without any evidence to support his conclusion, says most Jews don’t agree with the umbrella lobbying group.

But he might be right about one thing; that support for Israel is declining among Democrats. That’s a position that the many influential Jewish Democrats who are angry about Obama’s slap at Israel would dispute. It’s also one that people like House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who moments ago told the AIPAC conference that peace in the Middle East had to reflect reality on the ground (a direct riposte to Obama’s speech) would also disagree with.

But if it is true, and to listen to some on the left wing of the Democratic Party, you would have to agree, then who is to blame?

Is it the fault of Israel for speaking up in its own defense when its vital security interests are threatened and past American promises are trashed? Or is the behavior of President Obama who has continually picked fights with Israel’s democratically elected government from his first days in office? After Obama’s carefully plotted, though unsuccessful ambush of Netanyahu, it would not be unusual if many Democrats were to get the message that the head of their party has a problem with the Jewish state. If, as Goldberg insists, “Support for Israel (and for the Netanyahu government in particular) is slowly waning among Democrats,” then it is Obama’s doing not that of Netanyahu.

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The Politics of Palestinian Demography

Diplomats, CENTCOM commanders, and now President Obama have cited demography and, more precisely, the growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, as a reason why two states must come now rather than later. “The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River,” Obama explained.

Certainly, demography should be a concern if Israel is to remain both democratic and a Jewish state. So much of the demography that’s floating around, however, is little more than junk statistics. When I was editor of the Middle East Quarterly, we published “The Politics of Palestinian Demography,” a must-read article by Yakov Fatelson, who looks at the statistics the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics provides and which many Americans accept at face value. The problem is that the Palestinian Authority lets politics influence its numbers. Their Central Bureau of Statistics isn’t allowed to report Palestinian emigration, double-counts Jerusalem (which is also counted by Israel), and has made revisions at the request of the Palestinian leadership when the population in Jerusalem, for example, was found to have declined. The error today may exceed one million people throughout areas claimed by the Palestinian Authority.

In computer science, the old quip is “garbage in, garbage out.” When it comes to policy based on bad numbers, the same adage applies.

Diplomats, CENTCOM commanders, and now President Obama have cited demography and, more precisely, the growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, as a reason why two states must come now rather than later. “The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River,” Obama explained.

Certainly, demography should be a concern if Israel is to remain both democratic and a Jewish state. So much of the demography that’s floating around, however, is little more than junk statistics. When I was editor of the Middle East Quarterly, we published “The Politics of Palestinian Demography,” a must-read article by Yakov Fatelson, who looks at the statistics the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics provides and which many Americans accept at face value. The problem is that the Palestinian Authority lets politics influence its numbers. Their Central Bureau of Statistics isn’t allowed to report Palestinian emigration, double-counts Jerusalem (which is also counted by Israel), and has made revisions at the request of the Palestinian leadership when the population in Jerusalem, for example, was found to have declined. The error today may exceed one million people throughout areas claimed by the Palestinian Authority.

In computer science, the old quip is “garbage in, garbage out.” When it comes to policy based on bad numbers, the same adage applies.

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Mission Not Yet Accomplished in Afghanistan

Mike O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, one of the nation’s fairest and most incisive military analysts, has an important op-ed in the New York Times, reporting on progress he saw in the Afghan National Security Forces during a recent visit to Helmand Province. The ANSF have been growing in size but numerical strength is not always a good indicator of capability; in fact, overly rapid growth can create a low-quality force that will fold at the first sign of trouble. That’s what happened in Iraq during the early years. But O’Hanlon writes that is not what is happening today in Helmand:

During my travels, several Marine officers who also had experience in Iraq told me that Afghan police officers and soldiers were better fighters than their Iraqi counterparts. Routinely, in towns like Musa Qala that are still tense, Afghans provide half the personnel on most foot patrols — and I was told that they do not shrink from fighting when they run into trouble.

It should be added that the army is further along than the police, but both forces are much more impressive than they were just a few years ago. Does this mean that the U.S. can wash it’s hands of Afghanistan? Nope. O’Hanlon notes:

An American commander told me that in his estimation, after an area is first cleared of the Taliban, NATO can substantially draw down its forces there 24 to 30 months later. That gives NATO enough time to recruit and train Afghan Army and police units, allows Afghan citizens to gain confidence that the Taliban is not coming back and gives the civilian government a chance to get off the ground. The time frame implies significantly reduced NATO forces in southern Afghanistan by next year.

I would be nervous about even reducing NATO forces significantly next year. But next year is better than this summer. Let’s hope that President Obama doesn’t waver in his determination to win the war in Afghanistan. As O’Hanlon shows, we are making good progress but we have to stick with it for a few more years.

Mike O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, one of the nation’s fairest and most incisive military analysts, has an important op-ed in the New York Times, reporting on progress he saw in the Afghan National Security Forces during a recent visit to Helmand Province. The ANSF have been growing in size but numerical strength is not always a good indicator of capability; in fact, overly rapid growth can create a low-quality force that will fold at the first sign of trouble. That’s what happened in Iraq during the early years. But O’Hanlon writes that is not what is happening today in Helmand:

During my travels, several Marine officers who also had experience in Iraq told me that Afghan police officers and soldiers were better fighters than their Iraqi counterparts. Routinely, in towns like Musa Qala that are still tense, Afghans provide half the personnel on most foot patrols — and I was told that they do not shrink from fighting when they run into trouble.

It should be added that the army is further along than the police, but both forces are much more impressive than they were just a few years ago. Does this mean that the U.S. can wash it’s hands of Afghanistan? Nope. O’Hanlon notes:

An American commander told me that in his estimation, after an area is first cleared of the Taliban, NATO can substantially draw down its forces there 24 to 30 months later. That gives NATO enough time to recruit and train Afghan Army and police units, allows Afghan citizens to gain confidence that the Taliban is not coming back and gives the civilian government a chance to get off the ground. The time frame implies significantly reduced NATO forces in southern Afghanistan by next year.

I would be nervous about even reducing NATO forces significantly next year. But next year is better than this summer. Let’s hope that President Obama doesn’t waver in his determination to win the war in Afghanistan. As O’Hanlon shows, we are making good progress but we have to stick with it for a few more years.

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Language Matters in the Middle East

One of the more irresponsible press habits during the Iraq war was the inconsistent use of the passive voice. Americans might kill five Iraqis in an operation gone awry, but when a bomb went off in a school yard, the major networks and newspapers would passively report, “20 children killed in Iraq.” Never would they say, “Terrorists killed 20 children in Iraq.” Over time, the message of the language matters: When people talk about the tens of thousands of civilians killed after Saddam’s fall, they ironically assumed American responsibility rather than realize that it was the terrorists killing Iraqis whom the Americans and Iraqi government jointly were fighting. To abandon Iraq amidst the terrorist insurgency would not (and will not) bring peace and security, but would be the equivalent of handing Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge.

In the Arab-Israeli conflict language also matters. Israel’s borders today are the 1967 borders, modified only by the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and some minor arbitrated settlements with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Why do we talk about President Obama demanding that Israel go back to the 1967 borders when he technically means withdrawal from the West Bank and portions of Jerusalem to return to the pre-1967 border, i.e., the 1949 Armistice Lines?

Technically, the West Bank is disputed territory, not occupied territory. There was no independent Palestine in 1967 before the Six-Day War. The status of the territory was just as unresolved before 1967 as it was after. If the Israelis “occupy” the portions of the West Bank unresolved under Oslo and subsequent accords then the Palestinian Authority also “occupies” those areas. To resolve the dispute takes negotiations and compromise, not mob rule or executive fiat. Make no mistake: I personally favor a two-state solution and believe that Israel will not ultimately possess the entirety—or even the majority of the West Bank—but I also believe that after so many wars launched from the West Bank, peace requires defensible borders, not an advanced front line for Arab, Iranian, and perhaps Turkish rejectionists bent on Israel’s annihilation.

Along the same lines, the term settlement shows tremendous bias. If portions of Jerusalem are unresolved, then new Palestinian construction on disputed lands are as much “settlements” as new Israeli construction. To speak of Palestinian civilians and Israeli settlers is to accept a false narrative and a dehumanizing one.

It behooves those who believe that Israel matters and its security and Jewish identity are important to be accurate with language. Otherwise, they simply cede points in negotiations and risk putting Israel in an even more precarious position as diplomacy continues.

One of the more irresponsible press habits during the Iraq war was the inconsistent use of the passive voice. Americans might kill five Iraqis in an operation gone awry, but when a bomb went off in a school yard, the major networks and newspapers would passively report, “20 children killed in Iraq.” Never would they say, “Terrorists killed 20 children in Iraq.” Over time, the message of the language matters: When people talk about the tens of thousands of civilians killed after Saddam’s fall, they ironically assumed American responsibility rather than realize that it was the terrorists killing Iraqis whom the Americans and Iraqi government jointly were fighting. To abandon Iraq amidst the terrorist insurgency would not (and will not) bring peace and security, but would be the equivalent of handing Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge.

In the Arab-Israeli conflict language also matters. Israel’s borders today are the 1967 borders, modified only by the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and some minor arbitrated settlements with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Why do we talk about President Obama demanding that Israel go back to the 1967 borders when he technically means withdrawal from the West Bank and portions of Jerusalem to return to the pre-1967 border, i.e., the 1949 Armistice Lines?

Technically, the West Bank is disputed territory, not occupied territory. There was no independent Palestine in 1967 before the Six-Day War. The status of the territory was just as unresolved before 1967 as it was after. If the Israelis “occupy” the portions of the West Bank unresolved under Oslo and subsequent accords then the Palestinian Authority also “occupies” those areas. To resolve the dispute takes negotiations and compromise, not mob rule or executive fiat. Make no mistake: I personally favor a two-state solution and believe that Israel will not ultimately possess the entirety—or even the majority of the West Bank—but I also believe that after so many wars launched from the West Bank, peace requires defensible borders, not an advanced front line for Arab, Iranian, and perhaps Turkish rejectionists bent on Israel’s annihilation.

Along the same lines, the term settlement shows tremendous bias. If portions of Jerusalem are unresolved, then new Palestinian construction on disputed lands are as much “settlements” as new Israeli construction. To speak of Palestinian civilians and Israeli settlers is to accept a false narrative and a dehumanizing one.

It behooves those who believe that Israel matters and its security and Jewish identity are important to be accurate with language. Otherwise, they simply cede points in negotiations and risk putting Israel in an even more precarious position as diplomacy continues.

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Re: Obama Has Failed to Isolate Netanyahu

Jonathan’s post on the very few organizations willing to defend President Obama’s goalpost-moving borders position reserved a special place for the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL has not exactly distinguished itself as a voice willing to criticize this administration, and its supportive press release was particularly quick this time.

It will be interesting to see how the ADL reconciles its paint-by-colors defense of the President with the blistering press release just issued by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Entitled “Israel Should Reject a Return to 1967 ‘Auschwitz’ Borders” and subheaded “ ‘Auschwitz’ Borders: A term coined by Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban who warned that a return to pre-1967 Six Day War borders would be Auschwitz borders for Israel,” the release prominently, explicitly, repeatedly linked the President’s position with the specter of mass genocide conducted by forces intransigently hostile to a Jewish presence anywhere in the Middle East. Brutal:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center commended President Obama’s call for further democratization in the Arab world but expressed deep disappointment that he called for Israel’s return to the pre-June 1967 borders. “We welcome the President’s recognition of Israel’s security needs and that Hamas cannot be a partner in the peace process, but a call to a return to 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, even with ‘land swaps’ is a non-starter, when at least half of the Palestinian rulers are committed to Israel’s destruction,” said Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, founder and dean, and associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In the last 48 hours White House excuses have run the gamut from “there was no change in policy so people are overreacting” to “there was a change in policy meant to reinvigorate negotiations with a ‘borders first’ approach.” One particularly bold claim is that friends of Israel are not merely overreacting, they’re in fact misunderstanding President Obama’s basic position. “The President didn’t say that Israel would have to return to its pre-1967 borders,” these pedantic and condescending lectures proceed, “He said they should have to start with those parameters and then engage in land swaps.”

The Wiesenthal Center’s statement makes it clear that it’s not a case of people just not getting what Obama is suggesting. The widely recognized problem with Obama’s speech is that he adopted the final Palestinian negotiating position as the starting position for talks. That would leave Israel—now deprived of bargaining chips—in the position of trying to negotiate out of that position with nothing to trade. In the process the president abrogated any number of previous security guarantees to Israel, while asking them to have faith in future security guarantees. No wonder friends of Israel from across the political spectrum are labeling the President’s gambit a non-starter.

For completion’s sake, the Washington Times also just published a disbelieving editorial about Obama’s almost willfully created rift with Israel. Of the various permutations (was it a new policy? was it an existing stance? is it a coherent policy?) they settle basically on the combination suggested earlier on Contentions: it’s a break with previous administrations, but a culmination of this administration’s failed approaches. The question is why the White House would continue pushing failed initiatives based on flawed assumptions, and the editorial takes a detour through how the President has mishandled the issue of Jerusalem.

If its goal was to turn U.S. media outlets against Netanyahu and Israel, the administration’s lack of judgment went far beyond the speech itself.

Jonathan’s post on the very few organizations willing to defend President Obama’s goalpost-moving borders position reserved a special place for the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL has not exactly distinguished itself as a voice willing to criticize this administration, and its supportive press release was particularly quick this time.

It will be interesting to see how the ADL reconciles its paint-by-colors defense of the President with the blistering press release just issued by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Entitled “Israel Should Reject a Return to 1967 ‘Auschwitz’ Borders” and subheaded “ ‘Auschwitz’ Borders: A term coined by Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban who warned that a return to pre-1967 Six Day War borders would be Auschwitz borders for Israel,” the release prominently, explicitly, repeatedly linked the President’s position with the specter of mass genocide conducted by forces intransigently hostile to a Jewish presence anywhere in the Middle East. Brutal:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center commended President Obama’s call for further democratization in the Arab world but expressed deep disappointment that he called for Israel’s return to the pre-June 1967 borders. “We welcome the President’s recognition of Israel’s security needs and that Hamas cannot be a partner in the peace process, but a call to a return to 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, even with ‘land swaps’ is a non-starter, when at least half of the Palestinian rulers are committed to Israel’s destruction,” said Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, founder and dean, and associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In the last 48 hours White House excuses have run the gamut from “there was no change in policy so people are overreacting” to “there was a change in policy meant to reinvigorate negotiations with a ‘borders first’ approach.” One particularly bold claim is that friends of Israel are not merely overreacting, they’re in fact misunderstanding President Obama’s basic position. “The President didn’t say that Israel would have to return to its pre-1967 borders,” these pedantic and condescending lectures proceed, “He said they should have to start with those parameters and then engage in land swaps.”

The Wiesenthal Center’s statement makes it clear that it’s not a case of people just not getting what Obama is suggesting. The widely recognized problem with Obama’s speech is that he adopted the final Palestinian negotiating position as the starting position for talks. That would leave Israel—now deprived of bargaining chips—in the position of trying to negotiate out of that position with nothing to trade. In the process the president abrogated any number of previous security guarantees to Israel, while asking them to have faith in future security guarantees. No wonder friends of Israel from across the political spectrum are labeling the President’s gambit a non-starter.

For completion’s sake, the Washington Times also just published a disbelieving editorial about Obama’s almost willfully created rift with Israel. Of the various permutations (was it a new policy? was it an existing stance? is it a coherent policy?) they settle basically on the combination suggested earlier on Contentions: it’s a break with previous administrations, but a culmination of this administration’s failed approaches. The question is why the White House would continue pushing failed initiatives based on flawed assumptions, and the editorial takes a detour through how the President has mishandled the issue of Jerusalem.

If its goal was to turn U.S. media outlets against Netanyahu and Israel, the administration’s lack of judgment went far beyond the speech itself.

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Clinton Loosens Visa Policies for Iranians

Secretary of State Clinton has loosened visa restrictions for Iranians. While the United States has long welcomed young Iranians and should continue to do so, some Iranians complained that the lack of multiple entry visas was inconvenient. If Iranians wanted to study in the United States, they could not travel back-and-forth easily to the Islamic Republic to visit family and friends without then having to apply for a new visa.  While the secretary says that the new policy would apply only to those students studying in “non-sensitive, nontechnical fields,” the State Department often trusts universities to report students who might switch fields.

Some enterprising congressman might want to ask Clinton whether, as she eases these visa restrictions, she has formulated any plan to identify those pro-regime students in the United States whose reason to be here has less to do with intellectual enrichment and more to do with reporting on fellow Iranian students. Nevermind: At least the Secretary has made it easier for those students to take reports back home and deliver them orally rather than risk detection by communicating them by other means.

What’s most grating about this decision is not the lack of parity—Iran gives very few visas to Americans and doesn’t recognize the U.S. passports of Americans of Iranian descent—but rather that equally deserving students from allies do not get the same rights. In theory, for example, Afghan nationals can get multiple entry work visas but because of parity issues—the Afghans limit their visas to Americans—in practice, once Afghans get here, they’re stuck.

Once again, the Obama administration does what it does best: Ignore allies, both the Iranian students who seek to rescue Iran from a regime of misery, and students and enterprising youth from allied countries.

Secretary of State Clinton has loosened visa restrictions for Iranians. While the United States has long welcomed young Iranians and should continue to do so, some Iranians complained that the lack of multiple entry visas was inconvenient. If Iranians wanted to study in the United States, they could not travel back-and-forth easily to the Islamic Republic to visit family and friends without then having to apply for a new visa.  While the secretary says that the new policy would apply only to those students studying in “non-sensitive, nontechnical fields,” the State Department often trusts universities to report students who might switch fields.

Some enterprising congressman might want to ask Clinton whether, as she eases these visa restrictions, she has formulated any plan to identify those pro-regime students in the United States whose reason to be here has less to do with intellectual enrichment and more to do with reporting on fellow Iranian students. Nevermind: At least the Secretary has made it easier for those students to take reports back home and deliver them orally rather than risk detection by communicating them by other means.

What’s most grating about this decision is not the lack of parity—Iran gives very few visas to Americans and doesn’t recognize the U.S. passports of Americans of Iranian descent—but rather that equally deserving students from allies do not get the same rights. In theory, for example, Afghan nationals can get multiple entry work visas but because of parity issues—the Afghans limit their visas to Americans—in practice, once Afghans get here, they’re stuck.

Once again, the Obama administration does what it does best: Ignore allies, both the Iranian students who seek to rescue Iran from a regime of misery, and students and enterprising youth from allied countries.

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Even Ron Paul Unloads on Obama for Dictating to Israel

And with this we are officially down the rabbit hole.

Representative Ron Paul, in his statement responding to the President’s speech last Thursday, opened by blasting the administration for “once again . . . prov[ing] that it does not understand a proper foreign policy for America.” Usually a line like that, in a statement by Ron Paul, would transition into an exposition about how any foreign policy is too much foreign policy. He does get there eventually.

But first the Republican Presidential Candidate wanted to make a point about the U.S.-Israeli relationship:

Israel is our close friend. While President Obama’s demand that Israel make hard concessions in her border conflicts may very well be in her long-term interest, only Israel can make that determination on her own, without pressure from the United States or coercion by the United Nations. Unlike this President, I do not believe it is our place to dictate how Israel runs her affairs. There can only be peace in the region if those sides work out their differences among one another. We should respect Israel’s sovereignty and not try to dictate her policy from Washington.

Unstated but implicit in Paul’s statement is that he envisions a world of severely degraded U.S.-Israeli defense and diplomatic ties. The United States would have very little to say about Israeli foreign policy, because in this world the United States would have very little to say to Israel in general. U.S. companies would trade with Israeli companies freely, but otherwise Jerusalem would be left to fend for itself economically and diplomatically. In an era of mass delegitimization that would be a disaster for Israel.

Paul’s foreign policy is based on a deeply misguided gamble. He believes that pulling out of the Middle East would reduce anti-American fervor to such a degree that the United States would be net safer, versus an interventionist policy, from the metastasization of political Islam. That seems untenable for all the familiar reasons.

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And with this we are officially down the rabbit hole.

Representative Ron Paul, in his statement responding to the President’s speech last Thursday, opened by blasting the administration for “once again . . . prov[ing] that it does not understand a proper foreign policy for America.” Usually a line like that, in a statement by Ron Paul, would transition into an exposition about how any foreign policy is too much foreign policy. He does get there eventually.

But first the Republican Presidential Candidate wanted to make a point about the U.S.-Israeli relationship:

Israel is our close friend. While President Obama’s demand that Israel make hard concessions in her border conflicts may very well be in her long-term interest, only Israel can make that determination on her own, without pressure from the United States or coercion by the United Nations. Unlike this President, I do not believe it is our place to dictate how Israel runs her affairs. There can only be peace in the region if those sides work out their differences among one another. We should respect Israel’s sovereignty and not try to dictate her policy from Washington.

Unstated but implicit in Paul’s statement is that he envisions a world of severely degraded U.S.-Israeli defense and diplomatic ties. The United States would have very little to say about Israeli foreign policy, because in this world the United States would have very little to say to Israel in general. U.S. companies would trade with Israeli companies freely, but otherwise Jerusalem would be left to fend for itself economically and diplomatically. In an era of mass delegitimization that would be a disaster for Israel.

Paul’s foreign policy is based on a deeply misguided gamble. He believes that pulling out of the Middle East would reduce anti-American fervor to such a degree that the United States would be net safer, versus an interventionist policy, from the metastasization of political Islam. That seems untenable for all the familiar reasons.

Al Qaeda and its allies have anti-American grievances that go beyond the U.S. presence in the Gulf or U.S. support of Israel. They have even prominently criticized global capitalism, a particularly problematic nitpick given Paul’s singular focus on deepening global capitalism. Given Salifist aspirations toward reestablishing the Caliphate, if they didn’t come after us they would still go after our allies, and eventually we could no longer remain indifferent to those battles. Even if political Islam did burn itself out or find itself overwhelmed by commerce, as Paul sometimes predicts, we would still have to deal with Iranian and eventually Chinese interference with global energy supplies. Those are dynamics that, minimally, would not be conducive toward the trade-based international order that Paul insists would keep global peace. And so on. These are not original points. Neo-isolationism is not the most coherent idea.

But all of that said, still. Even Ron Paul—an arch-isolationist not known for boundless affection toward the Jewish State—felt moved to emphasize the close bond between the U.S. and Israel after listening to the President’s speech. Seeing Israel thrown under the bus in a vain attempt to jumpstart the peace process, or as a sop to its enemies in the Muslim world, was too much for a politician who would begin his presidency by ending the special bilateral relationship. The spectacle was that unseemly. Surreal.

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Five Years of Appeasing Syria Down the Drain

The Iraqi Study Group report, solicited by Congress and released in December 2006, was nominally the product of a joint commission comprised of the United States Institute of Peace, the Center for the Study of the Presidency, and the Baker Institute at Rice University. In theory, the committee heard expert testimony, deliberated, and came up with their recommendation. As is often the case in Washington, the Congressmen who sought the group’s creation had a preconceived notion of its outcome, and the study group’s chairmen basically used the expert testimony for show: If you want to mute criticism in Washington, stroke experts’ egos even as you ignore them.

While this was going on, Edward Djerejian, a former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs who also had served as an ambassador to Syria (and Israel), reportedly drafted the actual report. Both inside and outside government, Djerejian has long counseled engagement with the Assad family, no matter how much terrorism and how abusive their leadership was. Bashar al-Assad is “a very intelligent interlocutor and I think that he does understand the tremendous challenge of moving a country like Syria forward given all the problems,” Djerejian explained a decade ago. He often fought behind-the-scenes on efforts to ramp up sanctions on Syria. Just last year, he was suggesting that the Syrian government might be open to doing business with U.S. information technology firms, and many around Washington have said in the past that Djerejian himself might be open to doing some business or fundraising in Syria.

Because Djerejian was a realists’ realist, when the report came out, it was no surprise that it included the usual trope about diplomacy: “It is our view that in diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests. Accordingly, the Support Group should actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions,” In exchange for Syrian assistance on Iraq, the report drifted into left field, “In exchange for these actions and in the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including U.S. troops if requested by both parties.

Headlines get forgotten quickly in Washington, but sometimes it’s worth looking back on just how wrong the diplomats were about Syria and about Bashar al-Assad. Had we begun a proactive strategy to weaken the Assad regime and support Syrian reformers then, we might not have lost five years of opportunity figuring out ways to appease dictators, sellout allies, and otherwise tilt at windmills.

The Iraqi Study Group report, solicited by Congress and released in December 2006, was nominally the product of a joint commission comprised of the United States Institute of Peace, the Center for the Study of the Presidency, and the Baker Institute at Rice University. In theory, the committee heard expert testimony, deliberated, and came up with their recommendation. As is often the case in Washington, the Congressmen who sought the group’s creation had a preconceived notion of its outcome, and the study group’s chairmen basically used the expert testimony for show: If you want to mute criticism in Washington, stroke experts’ egos even as you ignore them.

While this was going on, Edward Djerejian, a former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs who also had served as an ambassador to Syria (and Israel), reportedly drafted the actual report. Both inside and outside government, Djerejian has long counseled engagement with the Assad family, no matter how much terrorism and how abusive their leadership was. Bashar al-Assad is “a very intelligent interlocutor and I think that he does understand the tremendous challenge of moving a country like Syria forward given all the problems,” Djerejian explained a decade ago. He often fought behind-the-scenes on efforts to ramp up sanctions on Syria. Just last year, he was suggesting that the Syrian government might be open to doing business with U.S. information technology firms, and many around Washington have said in the past that Djerejian himself might be open to doing some business or fundraising in Syria.

Because Djerejian was a realists’ realist, when the report came out, it was no surprise that it included the usual trope about diplomacy: “It is our view that in diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests. Accordingly, the Support Group should actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions,” In exchange for Syrian assistance on Iraq, the report drifted into left field, “In exchange for these actions and in the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including U.S. troops if requested by both parties.

Headlines get forgotten quickly in Washington, but sometimes it’s worth looking back on just how wrong the diplomats were about Syria and about Bashar al-Assad. Had we begun a proactive strategy to weaken the Assad regime and support Syrian reformers then, we might not have lost five years of opportunity figuring out ways to appease dictators, sellout allies, and otherwise tilt at windmills.

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Re: Obama’s Mania for the “Peace Process”

Max Boot is right on all sides of his take on the Presiden’t speech. By throwing in the 1967 borders as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he effectively drowns out his fairly inspiring vision for democratic change in the Arab world. But probably the most glaring lapse in the speech wasn’t his call for specific borders; it was his failure to apply his own calls for democracy to the Palestinian regime.

What could have been more natural than to place his own conditions for Palestinian statehood, and to tie them directly to his democratic vision? Rather than just echoing Israel’s demands for security and recognition, why not say clearly: Any Palestinian state will have to truly respect the rights of its citizens, to stop oppressing gays and Christians, to extend the same basic human rights to all that America expects of the other Arab states? To affirm equality before the law, freedom of speech and religion, and all the other “core principles” he set forth for Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain?

The absence of such words, just moments after they were invoked for the other Arab states, raises very uncomfortable questions. Are Palestinians less worthy of such basic rights than other Arabs? Or is the prospect of ensuring them so dim that the President is willing to abandon his own principles and endorse any peace deal between Israel and the PA regime, regardless of where it leaves Palestinians themselves?

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Max Boot is right on all sides of his take on the Presiden’t speech. By throwing in the 1967 borders as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he effectively drowns out his fairly inspiring vision for democratic change in the Arab world. But probably the most glaring lapse in the speech wasn’t his call for specific borders; it was his failure to apply his own calls for democracy to the Palestinian regime.

What could have been more natural than to place his own conditions for Palestinian statehood, and to tie them directly to his democratic vision? Rather than just echoing Israel’s demands for security and recognition, why not say clearly: Any Palestinian state will have to truly respect the rights of its citizens, to stop oppressing gays and Christians, to extend the same basic human rights to all that America expects of the other Arab states? To affirm equality before the law, freedom of speech and religion, and all the other “core principles” he set forth for Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain?

The absence of such words, just moments after they were invoked for the other Arab states, raises very uncomfortable questions. Are Palestinians less worthy of such basic rights than other Arabs? Or is the prospect of ensuring them so dim that the President is willing to abandon his own principles and endorse any peace deal between Israel and the PA regime, regardless of where it leaves Palestinians themselves?

There’s a third possibility, of course. That is that the President doesn’t believe in the possibility of a peace agreement at all; that his words were chosen solely to minimize the blame to his administration when talks fail; that it was just another round of preelection posturing, as each side tries to navigate hopeless waters with least damage to their standing.

If so, he’s in for a bit of trouble over the next few days and weeks. In their tête-à-tête at the White House, Netanyahu showed just how much more experienced than in rhetoric and political jostling he is than Obama. The Israeli Prime MInister’s outpouring of gratitude for Obama’s efforts, coupled with downplaying their dispute, beautifully set up his stinging repudiation of Obama’s borders. (Netanyahu called them “indefensible,” leaving the historically-minded listener to recall the dovish Abba Eban’s description of the 1967 lines as “Auschwitz borders.”) That slap in the face was coupled with another: The night of Obama’s speech, Jerusalem approved 1,500 more housing units in post-’67 Jerusalem neighborhoods. Nor is this the first time Obama has been checkmated by Bibi. Over the last few years, Netanyahu has shown his mettle as a political tactician, playing politics in Obama’s backyard while Obama can’t generate anything other than resentment and stiffening of resolve among most Israelis.

This week, Bibi will show his muscle in a speech before a joint session of Congress, likely to a standing ovation akin to the one he received in 1996, and the game will be up: Obama will face the choice of either retreating fully or clashing frontally with Congress just at a time when he desperately needs Congressional support to get anything done about the economy or anything else.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun. But you don’t need to like Netanyahu or his politics to sense that Obama has tactically been trounced.

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Re: What the Top Tier Can Learn from Herman Cain

“The candidate for president who best stands the chance of earning the gadfly-with-breakout-potential trophy is Herman Cain,” John says.

Maybe. On Fox News Sunday this morning, however (about 10:05 into the interview), Cain imitated Sarah Palin’s blank stare when Chris Wallace asked him about the right of return. “The right of return?” he said. “The right of return?” “The Palestinian right of return,” Wallace explained. “That’s something that should be negotiated,” Cain replied. “That’s something that should be negotiated.” Taken aback, Wallace asked whether he believes that Palestinian refugees should be permitted to return to Israel since they were “kicked out of the land [sic!] in 1948.” Cain replied:

Yes [pause], but not under Palestinian conditions. Yes, they should have the right to come back if that is a decision that Israel wants to make. . . . I don’t think they [Israel] have a big problem with people returning.

Even though Cain had told Wallace just a few moments before that he would offer the Palestinians “nothing,” because he is not convinced they are really interested in peace, his cluelessness on the right of return suggests that Cain is more blowhard than gadfly.

“The candidate for president who best stands the chance of earning the gadfly-with-breakout-potential trophy is Herman Cain,” John says.

Maybe. On Fox News Sunday this morning, however (about 10:05 into the interview), Cain imitated Sarah Palin’s blank stare when Chris Wallace asked him about the right of return. “The right of return?” he said. “The right of return?” “The Palestinian right of return,” Wallace explained. “That’s something that should be negotiated,” Cain replied. “That’s something that should be negotiated.” Taken aback, Wallace asked whether he believes that Palestinian refugees should be permitted to return to Israel since they were “kicked out of the land [sic!] in 1948.” Cain replied:

Yes [pause], but not under Palestinian conditions. Yes, they should have the right to come back if that is a decision that Israel wants to make. . . . I don’t think they [Israel] have a big problem with people returning.

Even though Cain had told Wallace just a few moments before that he would offer the Palestinians “nothing,” because he is not convinced they are really interested in peace, his cluelessness on the right of return suggests that Cain is more blowhard than gadfly.

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Obama Has Failed to Isolate Netanyahu

President Obama and his staff thought they were being very clever by throwing in the declaration that the 1967 borders were the baseline for future Middle East peace talks into his speech on the Arab Spring protests on the eve of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They calculated Netanyahu would have no choice but to accept this last-minute slap across the face from his country’s only ally. And if he did talk back, they figured he would find himself isolated without the backing of Israel’s allies in Congress and with most of the American media lined up solidly against him.

But Obama appears to have misread the situation. Netanyahu’s strong reply rightly declaring that the 1967 borders were indefensible may have infuriated the White House, but, contrary to their plan, not everybody is jeering his defiance.

The Washington Post editorial page took the president to school on Friday for injecting a counter-productive irritant into Middle East policy. As the Post wrote:

Mr. Obama’s decision to confront [Netanyahu] with a formal U.S. embrace of the idea, with only a few hours’ warning, ensured a blowup. Israeli bad feeling was exacerbated by Mr. Obama’s failure to repeat past U.S. positions — in particular, an explicit stance against the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Mr. Obama should have learned from his past diplomatic failures — including his attempt to force a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank — that initiating a conflict with Israel will thwart rather than advance peace negotiations. He may also be giving short shrift to what Mr. Netanyahu called “some basic realities.” The president appears to assume that Mr. Abbas is open to a peace deal despite growing evidence to the contrary.

The defection of a major editorial page such as that of the Post is a blow to the idea that Israel and Netanyahu have been isolated by Obama’s strategy. Jewish Democrats—an important constituency for Obama—were also less than thrilled. Members of Congress such as Anthony Weiner, Elliot Engel, Steve Israel and Shelly Berkley were all critical of Obama. Prominent Jewish Democrat Alan Dershowitz who has been one of the president’s principal apologists in the past told CNN that Obama had hurt the peace process.

While Obama can count on the support of lickspittle groups like the National Jewish Democratic Council and even the Anti-Defamation League, an organization so addicted to access to the White House that it seems to have lost the courage to speak truth to power, he has failed to rally an overwhelming body of Jewish opinion against Netanyahu, as he had hoped. Indeed, the more Netanyahu pushed back against the president, as he did in his eloquent rebuttal on Friday in the White House with the president sitting next him, the stronger his position became.

Obama will speak to the AIPAC conference today while Netanyahu will also appear there in addition to the Israeli’s scheduled address to Congress on Tuesday. There is every expectation that the president will water down his challenge to Israel in his AIPAC speech, as pro-Israel activists sit on their hands or give him only tepid applause. But Netanyahu will stand his ground, restating his objections to the U.S. dictat and do so to the cheers of both houses of Congress. These speeches may be the proof, if any was yet lacking, that the White House has once again outsmarted itself in an attempt to smack around Netanyahu.

President Obama and his staff thought they were being very clever by throwing in the declaration that the 1967 borders were the baseline for future Middle East peace talks into his speech on the Arab Spring protests on the eve of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They calculated Netanyahu would have no choice but to accept this last-minute slap across the face from his country’s only ally. And if he did talk back, they figured he would find himself isolated without the backing of Israel’s allies in Congress and with most of the American media lined up solidly against him.

But Obama appears to have misread the situation. Netanyahu’s strong reply rightly declaring that the 1967 borders were indefensible may have infuriated the White House, but, contrary to their plan, not everybody is jeering his defiance.

The Washington Post editorial page took the president to school on Friday for injecting a counter-productive irritant into Middle East policy. As the Post wrote:

Mr. Obama’s decision to confront [Netanyahu] with a formal U.S. embrace of the idea, with only a few hours’ warning, ensured a blowup. Israeli bad feeling was exacerbated by Mr. Obama’s failure to repeat past U.S. positions — in particular, an explicit stance against the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Mr. Obama should have learned from his past diplomatic failures — including his attempt to force a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank — that initiating a conflict with Israel will thwart rather than advance peace negotiations. He may also be giving short shrift to what Mr. Netanyahu called “some basic realities.” The president appears to assume that Mr. Abbas is open to a peace deal despite growing evidence to the contrary.

The defection of a major editorial page such as that of the Post is a blow to the idea that Israel and Netanyahu have been isolated by Obama’s strategy. Jewish Democrats—an important constituency for Obama—were also less than thrilled. Members of Congress such as Anthony Weiner, Elliot Engel, Steve Israel and Shelly Berkley were all critical of Obama. Prominent Jewish Democrat Alan Dershowitz who has been one of the president’s principal apologists in the past told CNN that Obama had hurt the peace process.

While Obama can count on the support of lickspittle groups like the National Jewish Democratic Council and even the Anti-Defamation League, an organization so addicted to access to the White House that it seems to have lost the courage to speak truth to power, he has failed to rally an overwhelming body of Jewish opinion against Netanyahu, as he had hoped. Indeed, the more Netanyahu pushed back against the president, as he did in his eloquent rebuttal on Friday in the White House with the president sitting next him, the stronger his position became.

Obama will speak to the AIPAC conference today while Netanyahu will also appear there in addition to the Israeli’s scheduled address to Congress on Tuesday. There is every expectation that the president will water down his challenge to Israel in his AIPAC speech, as pro-Israel activists sit on their hands or give him only tepid applause. But Netanyahu will stand his ground, restating his objections to the U.S. dictat and do so to the cheers of both houses of Congress. These speeches may be the proof, if any was yet lacking, that the White House has once again outsmarted itself in an attempt to smack around Netanyahu.

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Daniels’s Decision a Gift for Pawlenty

Mitch Daniels decision not to run for president is a blow to Republicans who thought the fiscally conservative Indiana governor was the man who could lead them back to the White House. But this latest dropout from the GOP presidential race gives a tremendous boost to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is scheduled to formally declare his candidacy tomorrow.

In the past few weeks, Daniels had flirted with running but couldn’t pull the trigger. His reason, he said, in an e-mail sent out to supporters late Saturday night that was obtained by several news organizations, was family considerations. Which means that we won’t spend the next year and a half listening to endless accounts and speculation about the breakup of his marriage and how he and his wife eventually got back together again. That’s a blessing for them and the country.

Daniels’s exit will rekindle speculation about a number of potential candidates who have ruled themselves out of the race: Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and even Jeb Bush. But while you never should say never in politics, the odds that any one of them will change his mind are slim.

Daniels’s departure will deflate Republicans who have been looking for a solid alternative to Mitt Romney, whose well-financed campaign is still severely handicapped by his record on health care. If you assume, as I think you must, that the people who say that they won’t run stay out, that leaves the GOP left with more or less three candidates who can claim mainstream status: Romney, Pawlenty and former Utah governor John Huntsman.

Some observers may claim that the absence of Daniels will cause some Republicans to think again about Romney. He has a winning style and a massive campaign war chest but his doubling down on his Massachusetts health care record more or less eliminates Romney even though he behaving as if he doesn’t know it. As for Huntsman, he’s not conservative enough to excite the grass roots or the Tea Party activists who engineered the GOP’s 2010 midterm triumph.

That leaves Pawlenty, who combines fiscal conservatism along with a strong appeal to evangelicals and other social conservatives. He also knows what he’s talking about when it comes to a president’s main responsibility: foreign policy which is more than you can say about most of the Republicans who are running.

This latest twist will also encourage the second-tier candidates as well as an outlier like Sarah Palin. If Palin stays out, Michelle Bachmann may be the one in the best position to break out from the pack and challenge the bigger names. Bachmann is a real problem for Pawlenty in Iowa. But he needs to be thinking about a long-term strategy that takes him beyond the first few states where Bachmann, like Mike Huckabee in 2008, may have success. The Daniels pullout is Pawlenty’s golden opportunity and he must make the most of it. If he can spend the rest of the spring and summer raising sufficient funds to run and creating credible organizations in key states, then he will be in a very strong position by the time the campaigning gets serious later this year.

Mitch Daniels decision not to run for president is a blow to Republicans who thought the fiscally conservative Indiana governor was the man who could lead them back to the White House. But this latest dropout from the GOP presidential race gives a tremendous boost to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is scheduled to formally declare his candidacy tomorrow.

In the past few weeks, Daniels had flirted with running but couldn’t pull the trigger. His reason, he said, in an e-mail sent out to supporters late Saturday night that was obtained by several news organizations, was family considerations. Which means that we won’t spend the next year and a half listening to endless accounts and speculation about the breakup of his marriage and how he and his wife eventually got back together again. That’s a blessing for them and the country.

Daniels’s exit will rekindle speculation about a number of potential candidates who have ruled themselves out of the race: Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and even Jeb Bush. But while you never should say never in politics, the odds that any one of them will change his mind are slim.

Daniels’s departure will deflate Republicans who have been looking for a solid alternative to Mitt Romney, whose well-financed campaign is still severely handicapped by his record on health care. If you assume, as I think you must, that the people who say that they won’t run stay out, that leaves the GOP left with more or less three candidates who can claim mainstream status: Romney, Pawlenty and former Utah governor John Huntsman.

Some observers may claim that the absence of Daniels will cause some Republicans to think again about Romney. He has a winning style and a massive campaign war chest but his doubling down on his Massachusetts health care record more or less eliminates Romney even though he behaving as if he doesn’t know it. As for Huntsman, he’s not conservative enough to excite the grass roots or the Tea Party activists who engineered the GOP’s 2010 midterm triumph.

That leaves Pawlenty, who combines fiscal conservatism along with a strong appeal to evangelicals and other social conservatives. He also knows what he’s talking about when it comes to a president’s main responsibility: foreign policy which is more than you can say about most of the Republicans who are running.

This latest twist will also encourage the second-tier candidates as well as an outlier like Sarah Palin. If Palin stays out, Michelle Bachmann may be the one in the best position to break out from the pack and challenge the bigger names. Bachmann is a real problem for Pawlenty in Iowa. But he needs to be thinking about a long-term strategy that takes him beyond the first few states where Bachmann, like Mike Huckabee in 2008, may have success. The Daniels pullout is Pawlenty’s golden opportunity and he must make the most of it. If he can spend the rest of the spring and summer raising sufficient funds to run and creating credible organizations in key states, then he will be in a very strong position by the time the campaigning gets serious later this year.

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