Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 21, 2013

Both Right and Left May Be Wrong About Obama’s Speech

Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.

While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.

Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.

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Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.

While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.

Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.

Those who would dismiss the president’s speeches as meaningless rhetoric shouldn’t underestimate the power of words, especially from an American president, to set the tone in the region. But those who think Obama’s appeal to Israelis to force their leaders to once again take risks for peace (something that runs contrary to the verdict of the recent Israeli election) may not only be misreading the mood of the Israeli public; they are also ignoring the Palestinians.

It should first be understood that merely stating America’s desire for a renewal of the peace process without demanding anything from the parties other than that they return to the peace table does not in any way constitute pressure on Israel. To the contrary, while Israel’s new government is under no illusion about the president wanting them to change course on settlements, they heard no concrete proposals from him that they must either refuse or accede to. In Ramallah, Obama echoed Netanyahu when he pointed out that the Palestinian demand that Israel concede every main point on borders and settlements prior to the negotiations was a formula for inaction, not peace. Israel’s position remains that it is ready to talk about everything without preconditions and that is exactly what Obama endorsed. Though it is possible Obama may follow this up with pressure on Netanyahu in the coming months and years, his speech actually made it very plain that pressure for peace would have to come from the Israel public and not from an American president who has learned his lesson about the futility of trying to impose his will on the Jewish state or on a Palestinian Authority that has consistently disappointed him.

While some on the Jewish right may only be listening to the latter part of the president’s speech in which he criticized settlements, what they need to understand is that Israel’s enemies probably stopped listening after the part where he endorsed Zionism and said those who wish to erase Israel are wasting their time. It will be those words and not his call for mutual understanding that will have the most impact.

The president may have felt that he had to precede any talk about peace with a stirring paean to Zionism and the right of Israel to defend itself against its enemies in order to make them feel safe enough to compromise. But to a Palestinian political culture that still seeks Israel’s delegitimization, that is an invitation to confrontation, not accommodation. So long as Palestinian nationalism is bound up with rejection of Zionism, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for even a stronger Palestinian leader than Abbas to make peace. And that is why he will, no doubt to President Obama’s frustration, continue to avoid talks like the plague.

Obama’s Jerusalem speech about the virtues of a two-state solution is no more likely to produce one than the one George W. Bush gave in 2002 when he became the first U.S. president to officially endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Then, too, Bush couched his support for the concept in a context of Israeli security and Palestinian rights (though Bush also endorsed Palestinian democracy, a point that Obama wisely avoided since Abbas is now serving in the ninth year of a four-year term). But while Bush’s heartfelt support helped encourage then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza (a colossal blunder that has worsened the country’s security and that neither Netanyahu nor any other Israeli leader will repeat in the West Bank), it did nothing to move the Palestinians. For all of his rhetorical brilliance, Obama’s chances of succeeding where Bush failed are minimal.

In the absence of any peace proposal that will hinge on American pressure on Israel to make concessions, nothing will come of Obama’s peace advocacy. Obama’s critics on the right, both here and in Israel, may say that his Zionist rhetoric is insincere and that the only aspects of his speeches that can be believed are those that call for Israeli concessions. But while he may not, as Aaron David Miller said, be “in love with the idea of Israel,” he gave a plausible impression of someone who is an ardent supporter of that idea this week. After this trip, it is simply not possible to claim he is Israel’s enemy, even if some of his advice to it is unwise.

The irony here is that the Jewish right that will attack Obama for his speech is probably as wrong about its impact as the left that cheers it. As long as the Palestinians remain unwilling to make peace, it doesn’t matter what the Israelis do or what Obama says about the subject.

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Is It Too Late to Save Syria?

President Obama was confronted with the anxieties of the Middle East yesterday when the first question he received at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu was about Syria. “Morally,” began the question ominously, “how is it possible that for the last two years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred and no one, the world, the United States, you are doing anything to stop it immediately. On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past, that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line. It seems like this line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?”

Obama began his answer by noting that there is no proof or consensus on whether chemical weapons have, in fact, been used. Then he pushed back on the accusation he’s done nothing: “It is incorrect to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have had hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid.”

That wasn’t much of a response, because the question was what is being done to “stop it immediately,” and nothing the West is doing would seem to qualify. And in fact the reporter’s question was representative of the current mood here in the States as well, in which calls for Obama to intervene in Syria are growing as quickly as the wisdom of such intervention seems to be fading.

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President Obama was confronted with the anxieties of the Middle East yesterday when the first question he received at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu was about Syria. “Morally,” began the question ominously, “how is it possible that for the last two years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred and no one, the world, the United States, you are doing anything to stop it immediately. On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past, that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line. It seems like this line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?”

Obama began his answer by noting that there is no proof or consensus on whether chemical weapons have, in fact, been used. Then he pushed back on the accusation he’s done nothing: “It is incorrect to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have had hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid.”

That wasn’t much of a response, because the question was what is being done to “stop it immediately,” and nothing the West is doing would seem to qualify. And in fact the reporter’s question was representative of the current mood here in the States as well, in which calls for Obama to intervene in Syria are growing as quickly as the wisdom of such intervention seems to be fading.

At the outset of this conflict, there was a vacuum. That vacuum presented the United States with an opportunity to shape who would step into the breach, and how. The Obama administration made the mistake of standing aside and letting countries like Qatar distribute money and weapons to the rebels. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the emergence of Islamist groups like the al-Nusra Front leading the way. That was followed by the head of Israel’s military intelligence claiming that Iran has set up a local army–modeled, presumably, after Hezbollah–in Syria of 50,000 men with plans to expand it to 100,000. Iran’s proxy control, if established, would essentially enable it to control forces on yet another of Israel’s borders and would give it hegemony stretching straight through to the Mediterranean. As Walter Russell Mead noted, this would also embolden Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons by convincing the mullahs that Obama doesn’t mean what he says and isn’t willing to back up his threats with force. After that came the news that al-Nusra and other Islamist rebel groups have established a “Sharia Authority” to enforce Sharia law in rebel-held areas, beating sinners with lead pipes.

Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain co-authored an open letter to President Obama today urging him to consider establishing a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syria, as well as increase help to the rebels. Mead made his own recommendation:

The President needs to act. None of the choices are particularly good at this point, and his political adversaries should cut him some slack here. Any US effort will not be a surgically effective operation that helps only the good people. There will be consequences to intervention in Syria and we won’t like all of them. Sending in US troops would be an enormous mistake; arming selected rebel groups is a much better choice.

Mead acknowledges that feeding American weapons to the rebels will very likely result in some of those weapons being used to commit atrocities. But, he adds, “defeating Iran’s bid for continued influence and control in a strategically vital country is a prize big enough at this point in Middle Eastern history to justify running some risks and accepting some costs.”

But the Iranian force being set up, according to Israeli intelligence, isn’t part of the Syrian army–it’s a parallel army. That means it’s there not to prevent Assad’s fall—though Iran would surely like to do that—but to presume Assad’s fall and plan accordingly. It would be, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a powerful independent actor. Will arming less troublesome, and noticeably weaker, rebel factions shift the balance of power? The case of Lebanon, in which there was an existing army and experienced political class that were both aided by the U.S. and still proved unable to resist Syrian/Iranian hegemony and Hezbollah’s empowerment, does not provide cause for optimism.

There will be no American invasion of Syria. And there certainly will be no NATO-led occupation force to do in Syria what the allies did in Iraq. It’s possible that those who want to step up arms and assistance to the rebels are right, and that it will tip the scales. But it’s at least as possible that it will lead to the further strengthening of bad actors. It’s clear that there have been consequences to the wait-and-see approach. It’s less clear if they can be reversed.

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Iran Genocide Threat Shows Danger Is Downplayed, Not Overhyped

President Obama reaffirmed his pledge never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon today in Israel while also urging his listeners to give diplomacy more time to succeed. But the one person in the world whom the president needs to persuade to listen to reason on the issue apparently has other ideas.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in a message aired on Iranian TV that if the West attacked Iran, it would violently retaliate against Israel:

“The heads of the Zionist regime should know that in case of any mistake against Iran, Iran will level down Tel Aviv and Haifa,” Khamenei said in a message from the city of Mashhad aired on state television to mark the Nowrouz festival, the start of the Iranian new year.

Iran’s threats can be dismissed as mere boasting intended for a domestic audience. The Iranians aren’t believed to have the capability of attacking Israel in this manner, let alone leveling cities. But the willingness of the ayatollah to speak openly about an act that could only be described as genocide only makes the argument for the use of force against Iran’s nuclear facilities all the more defensible, if not necessary.

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President Obama reaffirmed his pledge never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon today in Israel while also urging his listeners to give diplomacy more time to succeed. But the one person in the world whom the president needs to persuade to listen to reason on the issue apparently has other ideas.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in a message aired on Iranian TV that if the West attacked Iran, it would violently retaliate against Israel:

“The heads of the Zionist regime should know that in case of any mistake against Iran, Iran will level down Tel Aviv and Haifa,” Khamenei said in a message from the city of Mashhad aired on state television to mark the Nowrouz festival, the start of the Iranian new year.

Iran’s threats can be dismissed as mere boasting intended for a domestic audience. The Iranians aren’t believed to have the capability of attacking Israel in this manner, let alone leveling cities. But the willingness of the ayatollah to speak openly about an act that could only be described as genocide only makes the argument for the use of force against Iran’s nuclear facilities all the more defensible, if not necessary.

The statement is clearly intended as a riposte to Obama, who said both yesterday and today that the U.S. would do whatever was necessary to stop Iran, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said yesterday that Israel reserved the right to “defend itself, by itself.” Khamenei is prepared to continue to negotiate with the West on the nuclear question. But he is counting on the president and his negotiating partners in the P5+1 group backing down about Iran’s continuing nuclear development, which makes the prospect of a diplomatic solution seem highly unlikely.

The concessions made by Western negotiators in the last round of talks with Iran about allowing Tehran to keep its nuclear toys and to drop sanctions appears to be encouraging the Islamist regime to dig in its heels even further, certain in the knowledge that President Obama is all talk and no action. After more than four years of feckless attempts at engagement and dead-end diplomacy, convincing the Iranians this is mistake is a formidable task. But if the president means what he says, the escalating threats from Iran make it easier for Americans to understand what the stakes are in this conflict.

Khamenei’s talk of destroying cities makes the notion of containing a nuclear Iran—a policy that President Obama has explicitly rejected but which continues to draw support from foreign policy “realists” who support him—indefensible. For all of the common ground on the issue between Israel and the United States that has been on display this week, the question of how long the West has until it will be too late to take military action to forestall the threat is one that remains unresolved. If, as the president said last week, Iran had a year or more before a weapon could be produced, his caveat that he didn’t want to “cut it too close” with that margin should be taken to heart.

For years, apologists of Iran and critics of Israel have portrayed this issue as one that Jerusalem has blown out of proportion. But the blithe threat of annihilation of cities by the fanatic religious leader of a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons illustrates the reality that, if anything, advocates of action on Iran have soft-pedaled rather than over-hyped the danger.

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Three Years Too Late, Finally Some Honesty on Obamacare

This weekend marks the third anniversary of Obama’s signature achievement, the healthcare bill named the “Affordable Care Act,” better known as Obamacare. At the time of the bill’s passage the New York Times called it an “attack on wealth inequality,” and unsurprisingly the paper was full-throated in its support of the president and his agenda. Now that the bill is safely passed and its namesake has been reelected, the Times small business section has come to a shocking realization: Obamacare is going to very seriously, and very negatively, impact small businesses. In two separate stories on their homepage the picture is clear: business owners are facing tough decisions regarding their compliance and most of the possible scenarios will end up hurting the employees that the healthcare law was supposed to be protecting.

Yesterday the Times published a profile of a small business looking at the possibility of losing half of its profits due to requirements in the new healthcare law. The bakery’s owners are mulling their options trying to decide how to best comply with the law while still turning a profit. The options they’re deciding between are being discussed at businesses across the U.S.:

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This weekend marks the third anniversary of Obama’s signature achievement, the healthcare bill named the “Affordable Care Act,” better known as Obamacare. At the time of the bill’s passage the New York Times called it an “attack on wealth inequality,” and unsurprisingly the paper was full-throated in its support of the president and his agenda. Now that the bill is safely passed and its namesake has been reelected, the Times small business section has come to a shocking realization: Obamacare is going to very seriously, and very negatively, impact small businesses. In two separate stories on their homepage the picture is clear: business owners are facing tough decisions regarding their compliance and most of the possible scenarios will end up hurting the employees that the healthcare law was supposed to be protecting.

Yesterday the Times published a profile of a small business looking at the possibility of losing half of its profits due to requirements in the new healthcare law. The bakery’s owners are mulling their options trying to decide how to best comply with the law while still turning a profit. The options they’re deciding between are being discussed at businesses across the U.S.:

Option One is to provide the insurance. According to the law, Ms. Shein will have to offer health insurance or, most likely, pay a penalty, and she estimates the insurance will cost up to $108,000 a year for 90 employees (managers have insurance already).

This is just an estimate, she said, because the insurance companies have not yet created and set a price on plans that meet the law’s requirement for minimum care. 

Option Two is to not offer health insurance and let employees find coverage elsewhere, perhaps on one of the new government exchanges. Under this option, the company will probably have to pay the mandated “employer shared responsibility payment” to the government.

The cost to the business would be $2,000 per employee a year, but the law exempts the first 30 employees, so the total would be $130,000 per year for a 95-person company. One benefit of this option is that the company would not have to take on the burden or expense of managing the insurance plan, which Ms. Shein estimates would take $10,000 of staff time.

One way to cover the costs associated with the new law would be to raise the price of each item sold about 4 percent and pass the costs along to buyers. “It’s ironic that our success meant we could grow,” Ms. Shein said, “and now we will be competing against smaller companies, with 50 employees or fewer, who will be able to charge less per item because they don’t have the financial burden of health insurance.” Prices are currently similar among local competitors, Ms. Shein said, and she says she believes the increase in her prices could affect her sales, possibly significantly.

Ms. Shein is considering a third option: outsourcing certain jobs to reduce the staff, because businesses with 50 or fewer employees will be exempt from the penalty. “We can outsource the cleaning and make the drivers independent contractors,” she said, “and we can cut the least profitable delivery routes, least profitable accounts or reduce the variety of items we create.”

No matter what option is chosen, the profits of the bakery, which ultimately serve to help the business operate and expand, will suffer. Options one and two could endanger the business’s viability, and thus the livelihoods of its employees and owners. Option three would put many of the bakery’s employees out of a job, thanks directly to a law that was touted as a way to protect low-income earners. No matter what these small business owners decide, the jobs of their employees are at risk. Not exactly the picture that the Times painted three years ago while covering the healthcare bill. 

The second story, published in late November but still featured on the small business section’s homepage is a profile of several small business owners, including Robert Mayfield of Texas who has decided to hold off expanding his business because he is “scared to death” of the new healthcare law and its possible impact on his bottom line. In the same storythe Times reports:

Many who oppose the requirement say the cost of providing health insurance could mean hiring fewer workers. “Any dollar that gets diverted, whether it’s through Obamacare or increased tax rates, puts franchisees one dollar further away from being able to expand their businesses,” said Don Fox, chief executive of Firehouse Subs, a fast-growing chain of 559 restaurants based in Jacksonville, Fla.

Funnily enough the Washington Post has also come to this shocking realization. Today they published an interview with a cafe owner in Alexandria about his reluctance to expand his business due to the uncertainty still surrounding the healthcare law, its regulations and his compliance with it:

“These changes are less than a year away, and I still have no information about how much our premiums are going to cost,” said Manor, owner of Bittersweet Catering, Cafe and Bakery. “It definitely gives me pause when thinking about adding another location.”

Last week I discussed how another mainstream outlet, the Associated Press, had also come to discover the flaws in the healthcare law three years after its passage. During the debates about the bill, Nancy Pelosi warned that we would have to “pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.” It seems the mainstream media were also operating under that impression–that the bill would have to be passed before it could be accurately reported on.

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A Falkland Islands Coda

Spurred on by James Kirchick’s superb piece on why the Falkland Islands matter, and by my on-going visit to the UN, it’s worth pointing out how the Falklands illustrate one more thing: how the autocracies, in hanging together at the UN, all too often organize around their shared hatred of Israel.

The Argentine line, set out by Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to Britain, is that the referendum was “neither organized nor approved by the United Nations. . . . Argentina is not trying to change their identity or their life style, but the territory they live on is not theirs. . . . [The] Islanders are not part of the sovereignty dispute since the sovereignty claims are over the territory and not them.” Under this doctrine, most African and Asian nations are not legitimately independent either, since the UN did not organize their referenda. The theory that people can be separated from the land they live on would give Britain a claim to the land of Kenya, or Germany a claim to Namibia. It’s an approach that, as Argentina knows all too well, the UN would certainly never apply to the West Bank.

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Spurred on by James Kirchick’s superb piece on why the Falkland Islands matter, and by my on-going visit to the UN, it’s worth pointing out how the Falklands illustrate one more thing: how the autocracies, in hanging together at the UN, all too often organize around their shared hatred of Israel.

The Argentine line, set out by Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to Britain, is that the referendum was “neither organized nor approved by the United Nations. . . . Argentina is not trying to change their identity or their life style, but the territory they live on is not theirs. . . . [The] Islanders are not part of the sovereignty dispute since the sovereignty claims are over the territory and not them.” Under this doctrine, most African and Asian nations are not legitimately independent either, since the UN did not organize their referenda. The theory that people can be separated from the land they live on would give Britain a claim to the land of Kenya, or Germany a claim to Namibia. It’s an approach that, as Argentina knows all too well, the UN would certainly never apply to the West Bank.

What Argentina wants–relying on two UN General Assembly Resolutions–is to throw the Falklands question into the largely moribund UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Amusingly, UN Resolution 1514 of 1960, which Argentina claims supports its case, clearly rejects Argentina’s thesis that peoples and territory can be separated by noting that that “all peoples have the right to self-determination and in virtue of that right can freely determine their political condition.” General Assembly resolutions are in any case only an expression of international opinion, and are binding on no one. Argentina’s enthusiasm for the Special Committee is not a case of a misapplied principle: it’s all about the membership of the committee and Argentina’s search for a biased referee.

As Colum Lynch noted in February, thanks to regional blocs that routinely put up wildly inappropriate candidates for UN positions, the UN has a job for everyone. That includes Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari, who was re-elected rapporteur of the committee, and who joins Ecuador (an Argentine ally), Cuba (ditto), and Sierra Leone on the committee’s leadership. There are no Western nations on the committee, and the U.S. refuses to participate in it because of its irremediable bias. So how did Ambassador Castro make her appeal for UN intervention?

By asserting that “Self-determination is a fundamental principle contemplated by the international law that’s not granted to any settlers of a certain territory, but only to the original natives that were or currently are being subjugated to a certain colonial power….” You get only one guess as to which nation the UN code word “certain colonial power” refers: Israel, of course. So in this ludicrous analogy, Argentina is to the Palestinians as the Islanders are to Israel. What’s the point of saying something this silly?

Well, as Jonathan noted in January, Argentina is falling–whether for reasons of political sympathy, shared nuclear ambitions, or a mutual desire to escape their economic difficulties–ever more into Iran’s orbit. And one way you can signal that, and even advance it, is to complain about Israel. The appearance of terms like “a certain colonial power,” in other words, is a reliable indicator not just that the UN is up to its old game of slandering the Middle East’s only democracy, but that the autocratic powers are gathering and signaling to each other for nefarious purposes of their own.

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Obama’s Mix of Reality and Fantasy

President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.

The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.

In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.

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President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.

The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.

In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.

But however much this may have encouraged Israel’s moribund political left, the president’s warning that “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” to the question of how Israel was to navigate the future ran aground on his assurance that the goals of the Arabs who attended his 2009 Cairo speech were similar to those of the Israelis who heard him today in Jerusalem. Obama’s high-flown rhetoric about the virtues of coexistence and the need to establish two states for two peoples was widely applauded by the Israelis. But he is tragically mistaken if he really thinks the Muslim Brotherhood supporters who heard him in Cairo or most Palestinians have assimilated this ethos of live and let live.

The president may well be right that the ideal solution to the conflict is one in which the Palestinians have a state alongside Israel that will give them a focus for their national identity without threatening their Jewish neighbors. Were that a possibility, he would be correct in assuming that the vast majority of Israelis would embrace such an option even if, as was the case with the three offers past Israeli leaders made to the Palestinians, it involved far-reaching and possibly dangerous concessions. But his assumption that the Palestinian Authority—which rejected those three offers—let alone the Hamas rulers of Gaza or the Palestinian population for whose support both compete share this desire for two states is unfounded.

The president eloquently and rightly made clear that the United States would never abandon the Jewish state or allow its enemies to prevail:

So that is what I think about when Israel is faced with these challenges – that sense of an Israel that is surrounded by many in this region who reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it. That is why the security of the Jewish people in Israel is so important – because it can never be taken for granted. But make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [You are not alone].

This was comforting rhetoric to Israelis and their friends. But the problem facing those who want to solve the conflict is not whether the United States can reassure Israelis that they have nothing to fear but whether it can persuade the Palestinians to redefine their national identity in such a way as to be able to accept a solution to the conflict that does not involve Israel’s disappearance.

In telling Israelis that they were now the most powerful country in the region, he seemed to be saying they should stop thinking of themselves as victims and embrace a future in which their economic prowess can enrich the region. But by speaking of a future in which Israel could be “the hub for a thriving regional trade,” it sounded as if the president was channeling Israeli President Shimon Peres’s fantasy of a “New Middle East” that fueled the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that was debunked by the reality of the Yasir Arafat-ruled terror state the peace accords established.

Unlike in many of his previous comments about the conflict, the president acknowledged that Israel had already taken risks for peace and had been answered with anti-Semitism, terrorism and war. If, as he also noted, Israelis have grown skeptical about the prospects for peace, it is not because they lack the will for it or the idealism to which his remarks appealed, but because they know their foes have not given up their goal of Israel’s destruction.

In Jerusalem, Obama was preaching to the choir about peace. But if he thinks Israelis will rise up and force the Netanyahu government —which was chosen in an election in which the vast majority of the electorate prioritized domestic issues over the futile quest for a solution to the conflict—he’s dreaming. The Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers that heard Obama in 2009 at a stronghold of anti-Semitism and rejection of Zionism may all want a good future for their families just like the Israelis. But they want the future to be one in which there is no Jewish state. The same is true of Hamas and, despite the statements in English to the Western press by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, it is true of Fatah and its sympathizers as well.

Though this speech will, to some extent, satisfy those who continue to long for the American president to “save Israel from itself,” it’s not likely it will have much of an impact on the Palestinians or Muslims and Arabs who agree that Israel and the United States are united by common values and despise both for that very reason.

We can all hope that, as the president said, peace will begin “in the hearts of the people.” But if that was his goal, he had the wrong audience. What Palestinians heard was not so much his advocacy for their rights and statehood as the president’s affirmation of America’s commitment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state whose security will not be undermined. If that will cause some of them to give up their quest for its destruction, that is all to the good. But as much as this speech demonstrated that there are still plenty of differences between the positions of Obama and Netanyahu, it also made clear that there is even more distance between those of the president and a Palestinian public that has yet to accept Israel’s legitimacy.

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The Strange, but Revealing, Budget Process

I suppose it says something about Washington that the act of voting on a federal budget is now a symbolic exercise with relevance only to the next congressional election’s various campaign advertisements. But we are now represented by a Congress which approaches the budget process with no intention of enacting an actual budget. The only measure of true bipartisan agreement is that President Obama’s ideas are terrible, unable to muster any support on either side of the isle.

So the president has apparently given up. Among the many budget-related stunts and shenanigans this week was a House Republican demand for a vote on President Obama’s 2014 budget–which is currently nonexistent, and therefore a blank page. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has been unwilling and unable to pass a budget; the House, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget today, as they do each year (a novel concept Democrats still don’t seem to understand). Both parties in the House presented budgets they knew wouldn’t pass before approving the GOP budget. That resulted in a frightening moment for the party in power, when they risked accidentally passing a budget produced by their own party that was not the one they actually wanted to enact. As the Hill reported on a Republican Study Committee-produced budget yesterday:

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I suppose it says something about Washington that the act of voting on a federal budget is now a symbolic exercise with relevance only to the next congressional election’s various campaign advertisements. But we are now represented by a Congress which approaches the budget process with no intention of enacting an actual budget. The only measure of true bipartisan agreement is that President Obama’s ideas are terrible, unable to muster any support on either side of the isle.

So the president has apparently given up. Among the many budget-related stunts and shenanigans this week was a House Republican demand for a vote on President Obama’s 2014 budget–which is currently nonexistent, and therefore a blank page. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has been unwilling and unable to pass a budget; the House, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget today, as they do each year (a novel concept Democrats still don’t seem to understand). Both parties in the House presented budgets they knew wouldn’t pass before approving the GOP budget. That resulted in a frightening moment for the party in power, when they risked accidentally passing a budget produced by their own party that was not the one they actually wanted to enact. As the Hill reported on a Republican Study Committee-produced budget yesterday:

Democrats voted present to force more Republicans to vote against the Republican Study Committee’s (RSC) budget. Democrats hoped that by getting their members to vote present instead of against the budget, it might be approved by the House.

That would have allowed Democrats to train their campaign ads on the RSC budget, which would boost the Social Security age to 70 and cut Medicare benefits, including for people now 59 years old. The RSC blueprint would balance the budget in four years.

That is, for better or worse, our current budget debate in a nutshell. Democrats think the budget is terrible for the country, so they want it to pass; and though it does more to fix entitlements and balance the budget than any other GOP plan, Republicans wanted it to fail so they could then pass a budget that does those things less effectively but more palatably. The latter budget–Paul Ryan’s budget–passed this morning.

The Ryan plan sets the federal government on the path to a balanced budget and preserves Medicare. The Democrats in the Senate will respond with their own budget, which will increase spending and taxes and endanger entitlements by leaving them on an unsustainable path. Democrats are happy with both budgets, because they won’t have to worry about enacting their own plan and the fiscal ruin it is designed to bring upon the country, but they also think Ryan’s plan to save Medicare is unpopular and will hurt Republicans in the next midterm elections as Democrats ramp up their demagoguery and scare tactics.

On that note, Sean Trende has an edifying column today in which he cautions Democrats that they may be right about the Ryan budget, but they are taking much more of a leap of faith than they think. Democrats base some of the triumphalism on the belief that the Ryan budget, and more generally the talk of reforming entitlements and practicing austerity, cost the GOP votes in November. But Trende adds some context. The whole thing is worth reading, but Trende notes the exit polls showed the public trusted the GOP ticket on the economy more than Obama; that the claim that Republicans only held the House due to redistricting has been debunked; that demographics played a role in helping re-elect Obama that was unrelated, to a certain degree, to austerity plans; and that there were more supporters of Democratic candidates than of liberal policy objectives, among other insights into the polling data.

Additionally, Democrats had far less traction with this issue among key demographics than they expected. As the Palm Beach Post reported in August of last year:

But two Florida polls conducted since Ryan’s selection suggest that voters who are 65 and older support Ryan and his budget plan more than younger voters do. A third Florida poll released this week doesn’t include an age breakdown, but finds the state’s voters agreeing more with Ryan’s description of his budget and Medicare plan than with Democratic criticisms that it would “end Medicare as we know it.”

Democrats may think that bringing up the Ryan budget every year is going to pigeonhole Republicans as the party that wants to “end Medicare as we know it,” but it’s possible that the Democrats’ dishonest Mediscare tactics may lose their already questionable potency through exaggeration and obnoxious repetition.

Additionally, it will continue to draw contrast between the Republicans’ debt-cutting agenda, which is less popular than the GOP hoped but more popular than Democrats expected, and the Democrats’ steadfast refusal to take issues of debt and deficit seriously. After all the budget machinations this week, one thing remained constant: Republicans passed a budget with a plan to fix the nation’s finances, and Obama produced a blank sheet of paper. Both parties seem willing to take that message to the voters.

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A Greeting from the Palestinian State

President Obama visited Ramallah today and held a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during which he reiterated the U.S. stand in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But just before that confab he received a greeting from the real Palestinian state in all but name, already in existence on Israel’s opposite border. Rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel with reports saying that two landed in Sderot and that others may have been fired elsewhere.

While none of the terror groups, including the Hamas rulers of Gaza, took responsibility for the attacks, the message was clear. While the president was engaging in an awkward dance with Abbas about the peace process, the result of the last major Israeli attempt to trade land for peace was illustrating not only that the PA didn’t control much of what would constitute that independent state but that those who did had no interest in a two-state solution.

The Obama-Abbas press conference struck a very different note from the friendly exchanges that marked the president’s appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president was again stating his support for the idea of a Palestinian state and doing so in terms that ought to concern friends of Israel, he also pushed back a little bit on Abbas’s charade that Israeli settlements were preventing the outbreak of peace.

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President Obama visited Ramallah today and held a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during which he reiterated the U.S. stand in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But just before that confab he received a greeting from the real Palestinian state in all but name, already in existence on Israel’s opposite border. Rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel with reports saying that two landed in Sderot and that others may have been fired elsewhere.

While none of the terror groups, including the Hamas rulers of Gaza, took responsibility for the attacks, the message was clear. While the president was engaging in an awkward dance with Abbas about the peace process, the result of the last major Israeli attempt to trade land for peace was illustrating not only that the PA didn’t control much of what would constitute that independent state but that those who did had no interest in a two-state solution.

The Obama-Abbas press conference struck a very different note from the friendly exchanges that marked the president’s appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president was again stating his support for the idea of a Palestinian state and doing so in terms that ought to concern friends of Israel, he also pushed back a little bit on Abbas’s charade that Israeli settlements were preventing the outbreak of peace.

Obama said he wanted an “independent, viable and contiguous” Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, though he did not explain how that could be accomplished given the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are separated and cannot be connected except by rendering the Jewish state non-contiguous. He also returned to a theme familiar from his first term when he said Israeli settlements were “not constructive and appropriate.” He even said that building in the E-1 area in between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim cold not be squared with the creation of a Palestinian state, even though doing so would not prevent it from being viable or contiguous.

But Obama also said that settlements were not the core issue at the heart of the conflict and that if all the other factors dividing the two sides were resolved settlements would not prevent peace. Even more importantly, he emphasized that there ought to be no preconditions placed by either side before peace negotiations could be resumed. That’s a direct shot at Abbas who has refused to talk to the Israelis since 2008 and consistently set conditions for doing so that were merely a thinly veiled excuse for staying away from the table.

While signs of Obama’s own unhealthy obsessions with settlements were still apparent, this shows the president has learned a thing or two since he began his administration with a drive to force Israel to freeze building in the mistaken idea that this would make peace possible. Years of trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of Abbas have shown him that the Palestinian leader’s main priority has always been to find excuses not to negotiate, because doing so might place him in the position of having to actually sign an agreement. Though the president restated his positions on settlements and peace, he seemed to put the ball squarely in Abbas’s court when it came to negotiations. Though many observers thought the president would use his second term to resume a campaign of pressure on Israel to make concessions, even the Palestinian leg of his trip to the country shows that he may no longer be interested in investing scarce political capital in a fight with the Israelis when there is little chance the intended beneficiaries of his policy wish to take advantage of it.

Just as important, the rocket fire from Gaza was a reminder that Abbas, who recently began the ninth year of the four-year-term in office to which he was elected in 2005, is merely the sham leader of his people. Gaza, from which Israel withdrew every soldier and settler that same year, is, for all intents and purposes, the independent Palestinian state that Obama has been talking about. Rather than living in peace with Israel, it is nothing but a terrorist staging ground from which rockets continue to fly as testimony to the unshaken faith of its leaders in the unending war against the Zionism that Obama specifically endorsed yesterday upon his arrival in Israel.

It may well be that the president is hoping to persuade Israelis to trust him on both the peace process and the threat from Iran. That may be a prelude to future conflicts with Netanyahu. But his message to Palestinians seems to be more one of “get your act together” than one that offers them hope they can count on the president to hammer the Israelis on their behalf. While some supporters of Israel will grouse about what the president said today about settlements, what the Palestinians heard actually offered them very little comfort. The lack of a direct demand from Obama for a settlement freeze and the seeming endorsement of Israel’s call for resumption of negotiations without preconditions means the Palestinians have been put on notice that the president’s second term may not be squandered on further attempts to help a divided people that won’t help themselves.

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Rush Limbaugh and Me

In researching a topic, I inadvertently came across a recent criticism of me by Rush Limbaugh that I think is worth responding to.

Maybe the place to begin is to point out that I met Rush in the early 1990s, while working for William Bennett, and while we don’t see each other often, we’ve maintained a friendship over the years. We’re both conservative and so we agree often, though not always. Nor does Rush believe personal relationships should prevent political disagreements from being aired publicly, which is an entirely defensible position. And he knows that goes both ways.

With that said, let me set the stage for what triggered Rush’s comments. I had written a piece in COMMENTARY saying that (a) I found many of President Obama’s gun proposals unobjectionable and (b) those who insist that it qualifies as an attack on the Second Amendment need to keep in mind that the right to bear arms is not an unlimited one.

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In researching a topic, I inadvertently came across a recent criticism of me by Rush Limbaugh that I think is worth responding to.

Maybe the place to begin is to point out that I met Rush in the early 1990s, while working for William Bennett, and while we don’t see each other often, we’ve maintained a friendship over the years. We’re both conservative and so we agree often, though not always. Nor does Rush believe personal relationships should prevent political disagreements from being aired publicly, which is an entirely defensible position. And he knows that goes both ways.

With that said, let me set the stage for what triggered Rush’s comments. I had written a piece in COMMENTARY saying that (a) I found many of President Obama’s gun proposals unobjectionable and (b) those who insist that it qualifies as an attack on the Second Amendment need to keep in mind that the right to bear arms is not an unlimited one.

This led to Rush arguing that many conservatives can’t stand the heat that comes with opposing President Obama daily. His argument goes something like this: It’s true that commentators like me will criticize the president, sometimes sharply. But we’ll then find ground to praise Mr. Obama “so as to maintain some credibility.” My views are tailored in a way to “look reasonable” to the Inside-the-Beltway world in which I live. In explaining my position on guns, Rush didn’t say he and I have an interesting and honest difference of opinion. He said, “I guarantee you it’s wrapped up in not wanting to be seen as opposing Obama just for the sake of it.”

This sort of critique is fairly typical in American politics. There must be some base, ulterior motive to explain differences in opinion. In this case, my views on gun restrictions–precisely where to draw a line we all acknowledge must be drawn–aren’t made in good faith. They’re animated by a desire to be seen as “reasonable” among The Liberal Establishment.

As you might imagine, this criticism strikes me as wide of the mark. I’m a commentator on daily, unfolding events, dealing with literally hundreds of them over the course of a single year. The vast majority of my critiques of the president are critical, since he and I hold very different political philosophies. (I took a leave of absence from my job to work to defeat him.) But on those rare occasions when I agree with Mr. Obama, I have no qualms saying so and explaining why I do. Common ground is not always cursed ground.

I do think that as a general matter it’s best to stay away from trying to divine the motives of others. For example, critics of Rush might say he’s a relentless critic of the president because he’s playing to his radio audience, fearing that if he ever expressed solidarity with the president his audience might tune him out. Now I don’t think that criticism would be fair, since I believe Rush’s criticisms are sincere. We’d probably all do better to live by the (paraphrased) words of the philosopher Sidney Hook, who said that before impugning an opponent’s motives, answer his arguments.

As for Rush’s broader point, I’m reminded of a wonderful 1965 essay the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote on the British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot. As Himmelfarb put it:

The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.”

Bagehot possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.”

In those relatively rare moments of self-reflection, I’d say my mistakes arise more often from failing the Bagehot standard than the Limbaugh one. By that I mean succumbing to the temptation to ascribe all virtue and intellectual merit to one’s own side while denying it to the other—as if on every issue all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other, freeing us of the need to carefully weigh competing goods.

That of course doesn’t mean that all views and policies are equally meritorious or that one cannot take a principled stand or that one cannot be highly critical (or highly supportive) of an American president. It merely means most of us need to avoid the Manichean Temptation more often than we do. That applies to me. And I imagine it applies to others as well. 

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