Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the start of the ninth year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority in Cairo today by attending a summit with the leader of the rival Hamas group. Abbas was summoned to the meeting due to pressure from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who is expected to help pressure Gulf nations to donate money to the perpetually bankrupt PA. The Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has long sought to promote the idea of Palestinian unity, something that would strengthen the position of their Hamas allies. This worries Abbas, who also remains the head of the hopelessly incompetent and corrupt Fatah movement that runs the PA. But while there is little likelihood that this latest conclave between the two groups will lead to an actual merger and power sharing in the West Bank and Gaza, the signs are clear that they are moving closer to each other in other ways.
That was made plain by another and perhaps more significant event today. The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade is the terrorist wing of Fatah and was responsible for many terrorist attacks on Israelis during the second intifada. It hasn’t been heard from much in recent years as Abbas played the moderate to the applause of Americans and left-wing Israelis. But the march by armed fighters belonging to the group in a refugee camp near Nablus was an ominous warning that the reports filtering out of the West Bank about plans for a third intifada by the PA may be more than rumors. This gives the lie to the claims made by both the Obama administration and Israeli President Shimon Peres on behalf of Abbas’s bona fides as a peacemaker. This is something the Obama administration ought to take into consideration before they launch another attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to jump-start peace talks.
The White House isn’t wasting any time on the gun control debate. After meeting with gun-rights advocates today, CBS News reports that Joe Biden will present his gun control proposals to President Obama as soon as Tuesday:
After consulting with a series of stakeholders in the ongoing debate over gun control, Vice President Joe Biden will present his recommendations for reducing gun-related violence in America to President Obama on Tuesday, he said today.
The vice president, speaking to reporters before a meeting on gun violence with sportsmen and women, and just minutes before another school shooting was reported, outlined a series of the recommendations he said are emerging in the course of his conversations with various stakeholders in the conversation. Among those possible proposals include universal background checks, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and increased federal capabilities for effectively researching gun violence. Biden also stressed ongoing discussions about the importance of including the mental health community in the conversation.
In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.”
Brooks is on the mark with his analysis, and I’d add several things to it.
1. It’s quite telling that the one agency that the president wants to slash is the one that (a) is operating best and has garnered the most trust from the public and (b) is the area in which the federal government’s role is the most explicit and appropriate.
For those who still wonder whether Mr. Obama is at heart a pragmatist or a liberal ideologue, it’s worth pointing out that Obama has shown zero interest in cutting spending in non-defense related areas. In fact, during his presidency non-defense spending has skyrocketed. Mr. Obama has no desire to pare back the welfare state; his goal is to expand it beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Except when it comes to national defense. There he can barely contain his budget cutting ways.
As the Obama administration and its European allies prepare to embark on yet another drawn-out and almost certainly futile round of diplomacy with Iran, the lack of a sense of urgency about the nuclear threat is once again obvious. The belief that more negotiations or sanctions can convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition seems to be rooted in the idea that the West has virtually unlimited time to deal with the problem. That’s why so many in the chattering classes mocked Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he famously drew a red line across a cartoon bomb when speaking at the United Nations. Some in the foreign policy establishment seem to think Israeli fears about Iran are overblown or merely a ploy by its right-wing government. But it is also rooted in a degree of complacency about Iran’s capabilities. That complacency seemed to underline the optimism about the ability of the Stuxnet virus that was reportedly unleashed on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel last year even though it was soon apparent that it had only a temporary affect on their nuclear project.
Western overconfidence about Iran’s capabilities should have been shelved after that, as well as the wave of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Iran that crippled computers in the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as some American financial institutions last fall. The fallout from those attacks led outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to say that the U.S. was vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” but in case no one was paying attention, it appears the Iranians have struck again. This time the targets were American banks, and American security experts were clear that the culprit was Iran.
That the Iranians—who are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorist groups—would wish to harm the United States is not a secret. But what seems to surprise some observers is the skill and sophistication that is evident in this cyber offensive. According to the New York Times, the nature of these attacks dwarf what the Russians did to Estonia in 2007 when it attempted to take down its Baltic neighbor’s economy. While the cyber attacks are troubling in and of themselves, they also ought to expose the idea that the Iranians are years away from a bomb as the sort of hopeless optimism that ought not influence the debate about whether to forestall the threat.
As Alana mentioned, Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense may hinge not on policy or his qualifications, but something more important to the Senate club: how much the others senators like him. John Kerry, the president’s choice for secretary of state, will almost certainly breeze through his own confirmation hearings for the same reason. But the best contrast to the story about whether the cool kids will let Hagel eat lunch with them is Politico’s story on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming testimony on Benghazi.
In the wake of the attack, which left our ambassador and three others dead, I wrote that the fact that Clinton’s State Department denied requests for more security for our diplomatic team there made two things clear. First, that declining the security requests was irresponsible given the danger of the posting, and second, that the request itself was evidence that Clinton was negligent in the attention she was paying to the Benghazi team even though the folly of this approach was becoming more obvious by the day. A subsequent accountability review report came to the same conclusions, and painted a picture of a poorly administrated, chaotic, and inattentive State Department. So what is her appearance before a Senate panel expected to be like? From Politico:
In less than three weeks since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the battle over gun rights has remained in the news thanks to both opponents and supporters of the Second Amendment. The “meaningful action” that President Obama promised would take place the day of the Newtown shooting is still being debated by yet another presidential task force. The task force was set to meet with gun sellers (like Walmart), gun rights advocates and gun control supporters today and members of the entertainment and video game industry later in the afternoon.
While the national gun conversation rages on, liberals have decided to play hardball with legal gun owners, attempting to shame those who apply for gun permits so that they can legally and safely own and carry guns. The opening salvo came from the Journal News, a local New York newspaper that decided to publish the names and addresses, including a handy map, of every single legally permitted gun owner in Westchester County. Alana wrote about a hilarious twist in the story when the newspaper’s editors, who had received a significant amount of flak for the story, decided to employ armed guards in order to protect the newspaper’s offices.
President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.
But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.
As the White House scrambles to push back on the narrative that Obama’s cabinet lacks diversity, National Journal reports that there are few jobs left for potential female appointments (h/t HotAir):
Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.
The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.
You might think that the Obama administration, having declined to support British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions (with Obama even attempting, but comically failing, to call the islands by their Argentine name), that this administration has taken enough potshots at the UK. This impression is only reinforced when you consider the White House’s absurd and dishonest shenanigans over its removal of the bust of Winston Churchill.
But the administration is signaling that its second term will, in its low regard for British sovereignty, look and sound a lot like the first term. From today’s New York Times:
It may not just be former Senator Chuck Hagel’s policy stances that sink him, but also his personality flaws. Nominated senators are usually easy confirmations thanks to the Senate’s clubby atmosphere. But Hagel isn’t known for playing well with others, and he has few allies among his former colleagues, Politico reports:
Policy aside, Hagel’s bedeviled by his own abrasive personality. In a chamber known for back-patting and elbow-rubbing, the former Nebraska senator mostly rubbed people the wrong way. Now, on his path to the Pentagon, he has to hope that irritation doesn’t come back to bite him.
“He was respected as a colleague in the normal Senate tradition but was somewhat of a lone wolf and did not forge the deep personal relationships with his fellow Republicans that would translate into a ready reservoir of support for his nomination,” said John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who was the spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman John Warner from 2003 to 2007. “On top of that, his outspokenness and blunt criticism of several Republican priorities at a critical time, including Iraq and Iran, while sincere and heartfelt, have left him without a natural platform of enthusiasm for his confirmation.” …
The combination of raw nerves among his old colleagues and policy concerns among junior senators have cast doubt on Hagel’s confirmation process, which could prove to be the trickiest for a Pentagon pick since Texas Sen. John Tower was rejected, 47-53, in 1989. He was the last Cabinet nominee to lose a vote on the Senate floor, though others have since been withdrawn. A handful of Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), threw their support to Hagel on Monday. But Obama and Hagel could count themselves lucky when a senator keeps his or her powder dry.
Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. Tonight—Thursday, January 10—Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:
Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.
David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.
For several years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, following New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s flirtations with a presidential run became one of the country’s favorite political parlor games. In the end, despite being courted by the liberal press and many Democratic Party insiders, Cuomo never was able to pull the trigger on his candidacy and became known as “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his indecision. But whatever else one can say about his son Andrew, it appears that the current governor of the Empire State doesn’t suffer from the same malady. Any doubts about his intention to run for president in 2016 were dissipated yesterday with a state of the state speech that was a shopping list of liberal talking points and causes aimed at shoring up the governor’s standing with left-wing activists who are the core of the Democratic Party base.
Pandering to the left is always smart politics in a Democratic primary nomination race. Cuomo’s histrionics about guns, global warming, the minimum wage and abortion were exactly what he needs to establish his credentials with liberal donors and those who will be doing the bulk of the voting in Democratic contests that will be held three years from now. But the left-wing laundry list he enunciated yesterday in Albany is not without its risks. Even in a contest that is likely to be one in which the entrants will compete for the affection of liberal interest and constituency groups, the central theme of American politics in the next few years is likely to center on the question of how to deal with the deficit. But, as even a sympathetic article in the New York Times about his speech pointed out, there doesn’t appear to be any conceivable way that the state can pay for all of the new programs and government handouts Cuomo wishes to implement. Seen in this light, his manifesto shows exactly how the nation got in the mess that the president and Congress have been fighting about. This sort of stuff may generate applause in New York, but is the country really ready for another round of taxing and spending that Cuomo wants to initiate?
Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.
Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.
In a rare moment of perception, Thomas Friedman wrote recently that if you want to be taken seriously in Israel, “there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: ‘Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?’”
What brought this to mind was the latest broadside by Friedman’s fellow New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who reiterated what has become the favorite mantra not only of those who support Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, but of liberal American Jewish groups like J Street and even the Union for Reform Judaism: that Israel’s “true friends” are those who tell it, loudly and publicly, that its policies are “self-defeating and wrong,” in an effort to stop what they perceive as its rush to self-destruction. I fully agree that friends should warn against behavior they view as self-destructive. But anyone who thinks that confronting Israel publicly is helping rather than hurting it doesn’t understand what neighborhood Israel is living in.