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Posts For: March 22, 2013

Why Biden Won’t Fold on the Gun Ban

Yahoo News reports that Vice President Joe Biden met with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg–the leading proponent of a theory of liberal governing known as “banning stuff I don’t much like”–to try to revive the gun ban that Harry Reid dropped from the Senate’s push for gun control legislation. Biden and Bloomberg “issued a joint appeal to members of Congress, urging lawmakers to ignore politics and do the ‘right thing’ by passing new federal gun-control laws.”

The phrase “ignore politics” means ignore the voters, to whom members of Congress are answerable and who they expect to punish them for going too far on this issue. As I wrote yesterday, in pushing the assault weapons ban, the White House put Reid in a difficult position. Reid rarely permits the Senate to carry out anything resembling responsible governance because he doesn’t want Democrats to have to vote on anything troublesome. Since most liberal policy ideas are terrible, Reid ensures they rarely have to come to the floor for a vote. But President Obama made gun control an issue, and wanted a whip count on a gun ban. So Reid gave him the whip count–publicly–which embarrassed the gun ban’s supporters because it showed that Democrats don’t like the legislation either, which is why it was dropped.

Which leads to a question we find ourselves asking an awful lot these days: What is Joe Biden doing?

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Yahoo News reports that Vice President Joe Biden met with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg–the leading proponent of a theory of liberal governing known as “banning stuff I don’t much like”–to try to revive the gun ban that Harry Reid dropped from the Senate’s push for gun control legislation. Biden and Bloomberg “issued a joint appeal to members of Congress, urging lawmakers to ignore politics and do the ‘right thing’ by passing new federal gun-control laws.”

The phrase “ignore politics” means ignore the voters, to whom members of Congress are answerable and who they expect to punish them for going too far on this issue. As I wrote yesterday, in pushing the assault weapons ban, the White House put Reid in a difficult position. Reid rarely permits the Senate to carry out anything resembling responsible governance because he doesn’t want Democrats to have to vote on anything troublesome. Since most liberal policy ideas are terrible, Reid ensures they rarely have to come to the floor for a vote. But President Obama made gun control an issue, and wanted a whip count on a gun ban. So Reid gave him the whip count–publicly–which embarrassed the gun ban’s supporters because it showed that Democrats don’t like the legislation either, which is why it was dropped.

Which leads to a question we find ourselves asking an awful lot these days: What is Joe Biden doing?

The vice president is following a script heavy on emotion and symbolism and light on practicality. Of course, that’s national politics much of the time. But it hasn’t had much success thus far on the gun control debate. The best example of this failure is not Reid’s decision to pull the gun ban from a bill that might otherwise pass the Senate and at least enact some additional regulation of gun purchases, but rather what happened when New York State passed a gun bun.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appealed to emotion after the Newtown tragedy and created a crisis atmosphere to force through a restrictive gun ban. The bill Cuomo proudly signed was a perfectly contemptible example of bad governing. He would like it to go on his resume has having taken action on an issue of import, but it really attests to how ill-served voters are to have someone like Cuomo represent them in office. At Legal Insurrection, William Jacobson explains:

The NY Gun law effectively banned the purchase of new pistols because pistols are not generally made to hold 7-round magazines, and even if some manufacturers would produce such magazines for the NY market, it still presented a constitutional problem:  Under the Heller and McDonald cases, the state cannot effectively ban handguns either outright or by setting up irrational and onerous obstacles.

Such a law can only be written and supported by someone who doesn’t know much about handguns, constitutional law, or reasonable policy enforcement. So says Cuomo himself, about his own bill:

But after weeks of criticism from gun owners, Mr. Cuomo said on Wednesday that he would seek to ease the restriction, which he said had proved unworkable even before it was scheduled to take effect on April 15.

The gun-control law, approved in January, banned the sale of magazines that hold more than seven rounds of ammunition. But, Mr. Cuomo said Wednesday, seven-round magazines are not widely manufactured. And, although the new gun law provided an exemption for the use of 10-round magazines at firing ranges and competitions, it did not provide a legal way for gun owners to purchase such magazines.

The obvious question is: Couldn’t Cuomo have found all this out before signing the bill? And the obvious answer is: Absolutely. But Cuomo saw an opportunity to “do something” and took it. Which brings us back to Biden. The vice president and Bloomberg gave a press conference surrounded by family of victims of the Newtown massacre and urged the political class to pass a gun ban in the name of those victims. Isn’t this exactly what ran aground both in New York and in the U.S. Senate?

It is. But Biden has much more of a stake in passing hearty gun control than even Cuomo, and certainly than his boss in the White House or Harry Reid. Biden was tasked by President Obama with leading the way on gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Connecticut. Biden is trying to build his own White House resume, independent of Obama’s, because while Obama never has to face the voters again, Biden may want to run for president to succeed Obama. To do that, he’ll need to prove he’s more than just a schmoozer. The only way Biden has a shot is by establishing competence and authority. Biden, unlike Obama, Reid, and even, to a lesser extent, Cuomo, has too much riding on this losing hand to fold.

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Obama Will Need to Curb Kerry’s Folly

President Obama is being praised for his peace advocacy during his visit to Israel this week. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy observers that for all of his eloquent appeals for coexistence, he did not commit himself to any specific peace plan. In fact, he actually endorsed Israel’s call for negotiations without preconditions, a clear change from previous U.S. demands for a settlement freeze and other concessions. Even more to the point, since Palestinian attitudes toward Obama’s visit ranged from indifference to outright hostility, it’s hard to see how the president’s attempt to urge young Israelis to work for peace will change a thing.

The president was wise to avoid specifics since the prospects for progress in negotiations, or even holding talks, are bleak. But it appears that new Secretary of State John Kerry has no such inhibitions. According to an article in Politico today, Kerry is straining at the leash this week as he prepares to dive headfirst into an all-out effort to restart the peace process. Kerry is undaunted by the unbroken record of failure on the part of a long list of his predecessors, and seems blithely indifferent to the current situation in which the Palestinians remain divided and unable to move toward peace. The president appears willing to let Kerry waste his time on another go at mediation, so long as, Politico notes, “he keeps a low profile and doesn’t generate a political backlash.” But Kerry’s open desire to use his new position to make a place for himself in the history books seems to be setting up the president for exactly what he seems to want to avoid: an embarrassing fiasco that could distract both the Europeans and Israelis from the main security threat to the region coming from Iran and set the stage for more Palestinian violence.

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President Obama is being praised for his peace advocacy during his visit to Israel this week. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy observers that for all of his eloquent appeals for coexistence, he did not commit himself to any specific peace plan. In fact, he actually endorsed Israel’s call for negotiations without preconditions, a clear change from previous U.S. demands for a settlement freeze and other concessions. Even more to the point, since Palestinian attitudes toward Obama’s visit ranged from indifference to outright hostility, it’s hard to see how the president’s attempt to urge young Israelis to work for peace will change a thing.

The president was wise to avoid specifics since the prospects for progress in negotiations, or even holding talks, are bleak. But it appears that new Secretary of State John Kerry has no such inhibitions. According to an article in Politico today, Kerry is straining at the leash this week as he prepares to dive headfirst into an all-out effort to restart the peace process. Kerry is undaunted by the unbroken record of failure on the part of a long list of his predecessors, and seems blithely indifferent to the current situation in which the Palestinians remain divided and unable to move toward peace. The president appears willing to let Kerry waste his time on another go at mediation, so long as, Politico notes, “he keeps a low profile and doesn’t generate a political backlash.” But Kerry’s open desire to use his new position to make a place for himself in the history books seems to be setting up the president for exactly what he seems to want to avoid: an embarrassing fiasco that could distract both the Europeans and Israelis from the main security threat to the region coming from Iran and set the stage for more Palestinian violence.

That Kerry would embark on such a quest at a moment when success seems impossible speaks volumes not only about his ego but his inability to grasp the realities of the region.

Though the president addressed his pleas for peace to Israelis, given the fact that, as the president acknowledged in his Jerusalem speech, they have already taken risks for peace, the ball is clearly in the Palestinians’ court. But with Hamas in control of Gaza, the Palestinians are not merely divided; Abbas and the PA understand that any move toward recognition of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, would bolster the Islamist terror group’s ambition in its rivalry with Fatah.

The New York Times helped prop up the idea that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is eager to resume negotiations by publishing a piece claiming internal PA memos testify to his willingness to talk. But since this is the same man who has been studiously avoiding returning to the table for more than four years after he fled from an Israeli offer of statehood, it’s difficult to take such stories seriously.

Kerry’s fatal flaw appears to be, as Politico puts it, that he is “in lockstep with European leaders, who view the Israeli-Palestinian issue with great urgency.” He also stands “a bit closer to the Palestinians than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and less likely to reflexively embrace the Israeli position.” But one must ask why Kerry thinks Hamas or a fearful Abbas will respond to his charms when years of President Obama attempting to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction yielded only disdain?

As the Arab Spring and the Iranian threat have proved, the notion that bringing Israel to heel can solve all the region’s problems is absurd. Indeed, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt has strengthened Hamas and weakened Fatah and made any movement even more unlikely.

More to the point, as Seth wrote earlier, Palestinians seem mired more than ever in a culture of hatred toward Israel and Jews that renders them indifferent to the president’s peace advocacy since it came within the context of speeches that embraced the Zionist narrative about Israel’s creation.

Though Obama may hope Kerry’s activities will keep hopes for peace alive without compromising U.S. policy on more urgent issues, that may be a snare that will undermine any efforts to focus the Europeans on the Iranian threat. Even worse, like other American peace processors, Kerry’s gambit could serve to raise hopes whose disappointment will be used as justification for a new round of violence that many Palestinians are already openly planning for.

This means the president needs to keep close curbs on his new secretary. Unless he wishes his second term to be embroiled in a failure that will limit his ability to deal effectively with Iran as well as distract him from the need to address vital domestic issues, he’s going to need to stop Kerry’s vain and foolish pursuit of diplomatic glory.

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Obama Channels Clinton, Not Carter

In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.

But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.

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In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.

But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.

The president may have spent his first three years in office picking fights with Netanyahu and seeking, as administration staffers openly said in 2009, to create some distance between Israel and the United States. But after the stirring Zionist rhetoric uttered by the president during his stay in the Jewish state, it’s simply no longer possible for his opponents to brand him as a foe of Israel or as someone who is unsympathetic to its plight. Though his appeals for peace were addressed to the wrong side of the conflict, it just isn’t possible to ask any American president to have said more.

As much as many conservatives have, with good reason, hammered Obama both for the tone and the substance of his policies toward Israel, there can be no denying that he went some way toward rectifying his past mistakes. His speeches didn’t merely give the Israelis some love. He specifically endorsed the Zionist narrative and rationale about Israel’s founding and its purpose. Unlike his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, when he seemed to say that its creation was merely a sop to the Jews suffering in the Holocaust, this week the president cited the thousands of years of Jewish history that gave them a right to sovereignty in their historic homeland. He reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with Israel as being both “eternal” and “unbreakable.” The president also specifically endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense against terrorism and pointedly said those who seek its destruction are wasting their time.

At this point, the comparisons between Obama and Jimmy Carter or even the first President Bush, who were both rightly criticized for their hostile attitudes toward Israel, ought to cease. Instead, the more apt comparison would be Bill Clinton, who went out of his way to express warm friendship for Israel even as he pushed hard to continue a failed peace process.

That doesn’t mean the president’s stands on issues relating to Israel are exempt from criticism. Though he once again promised in the most absolute terms that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon and that all options, including force, remain on the table, there is room for plenty of skepticism about whether he will make good on that pledge even if he wants to. Obama’s naïve views about the chances for peace and his mischaracterization of Abbas as a reliable partner for Israel also deserve close scrutiny.

It is here that the Clinton analogy is most telling. Though Clinton is rightly remembered in Israel for his “Shalom, haver” farewell to Yitzhak Rabin and as being a stout friend of the Jewish state, his blind faith in the Oslo Accords—whose signing he hosted on the White House Lawn—wound up doing Israel more harm than good.

As State Department veteran Dennis Ross subsequently admitted in his memoirs, the U.S. became so committed to the idea of peace that it blinded itself to the reality of the Palestinian Authority that Oslo created. The Clinton administration refused to acknowledge the PA’s incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews as well as its cozy relationship with Fatah’s own terrorist auxiliaries. That foolish tunnel vision led to the chaos and bloodshed of the second intifada that cost the lives of more than a thousand Israelis and far more Palestinians.

Yet for all that, Clinton, who to this day faults Arafat’s refusal to accept Israel’s offer of statehood at Camp David in the summer of 2000 for his failure to win a Nobel Peace Prize, must still be regarded as a friend of Israel–albeit one that sometimes urged it to adopt mistaken policies.

Obama, who seems prepared to make the same mistake about Abbas that Clinton did with Arafat, must now be regarded in much the same way. Though it would have been more useful for him to preach peace to Palestinian students than to a handpicked group of left-wing Israelis, the lengths to which he went to demonstrate his support for Israel must be acknowledged and applauded.

This entitles Jewish Democrats who spent the last year extolling the president as a true friend of Israel to a skeptical Jewish electorate to feel as if Obama has made them look prophetic. And Republicans, who were right to hold Obama accountable for his past record of hostility, will by the same token have to take their criticism of him down a notch, at least on this issue.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will use his new standing as a friend of Israel for good or for ill. He will be judged on his actions toward Iran as well as on whether his peace advocacy takes into account the utter lack of interest toward that goal on the part of the Palestinian people. But there is no escaping the fact that from now on—or at least until events dictate another shift in opinion—his relations with Israel will be remembered more for his embrace of Zionism than his squabbles with Netanyahu.

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The Most Important Paragraph of Obama’s Entire Israel Trip

Yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received two significant mentions in the press. The first was from President Obama, who quoted Sharon in his speech to Israeli youth. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Obama said in Sharon’s name, telling the crowd to make peace with the Palestinians and warning against the quest for a Greater Israel. Quoting Sharon was a wise choice to express this sentiment. It isn’t just American presidents, Obama was saying, who believe in the necessity of the two-state solution; King Arik–once the architect of a sovereign Greater Israel–said so too.

But the other instance of Sharon’s name cropping up again yesterday was far less laudatory of the man still in a coma. The Times of Israel posted a video released by the Palestinians in Gaza, in which Palestinian women, under the proud, smiling gaze of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, used Sharon’s face as target practice on a public shooting range. This is relevant to Obama’s speech as well. The address, which was well written and well delivered, had passages everyone could agree with. But no paragraph was more observant or insightful than when Obama said this:

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Yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received two significant mentions in the press. The first was from President Obama, who quoted Sharon in his speech to Israeli youth. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Obama said in Sharon’s name, telling the crowd to make peace with the Palestinians and warning against the quest for a Greater Israel. Quoting Sharon was a wise choice to express this sentiment. It isn’t just American presidents, Obama was saying, who believe in the necessity of the two-state solution; King Arik–once the architect of a sovereign Greater Israel–said so too.

But the other instance of Sharon’s name cropping up again yesterday was far less laudatory of the man still in a coma. The Times of Israel posted a video released by the Palestinians in Gaza, in which Palestinian women, under the proud, smiling gaze of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, used Sharon’s face as target practice on a public shooting range. This is relevant to Obama’s speech as well. The address, which was well written and well delivered, had passages everyone could agree with. But no paragraph was more observant or insightful than when Obama said this:

This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics –it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace. As more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and division.

I am not going to claim here that the president reads COMMENTARY, but I’m satisfied with rhetoric coming from Obama that even raises the possibility. Because this paragraph is something we have echoed here, repeatedly, in the wake of the Arab Spring. I don’t know if Obama fully appreciates, understands, or accepts the implications of that quote. But that quote is the key to understanding the challenge of Arab-Israeli peace and the failed legacy that Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to leave behind him.

The Arab Spring has changed the calculus for any peace negotiations. The mirage of stability has given way to the reality and realization of the populist power of the Arab street. Signing a treaty with an unpopular, undemocratic, unaccountable, and unrepresentative autocrat is, in the new Middle East, something close to worthless. And that is precisely why those who say that Israel must seize the opportunity to strike a deal with Abbas are missing the point. This crowd, which had the loudest voice in Ben Birnbaum’s piece on Abbas, says two things about the man: he is the best Palestinian partner for peace Israel has ever had, and he is the best Palestinian partner for peace Israel is likely to ever have. The first half of that statement is utterly meaningless. But the second contains the key to the conflict.

If Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the Palestinian people (at least in the West Bank) and represents Palestinian society to the international community (at least on paper), will be succeeded by more hateful and less peaceful Palestinian leaders in any plausible scenario, then he has presided over the seeding and sowing of that hatred. If the Palestinian people are ever to make peace with Israel, then the state-sponsored anti-Semitism has to stop. The incitement to violence has to stop. The state-sponsored celebration of murderers has to stop. The denial of Jewish history and connection to the land has to stop. Abbas rules over a vast bureaucracy that energetically poisons the minds of Palestinian children with a hatred that destroys everything it touches.

What will a future with such a generation look like? It will look like the Palestinian women in Gaza shooting bullets at the picture of a Jewish leader in a coma. That picture, you’ll note, is attached to one corner of a giant Jewish Star of David. The women may be shooting at Sharon (and the others pictured there), but the more important, and indelible, image is of them shooting at the representation of the Jewish people.

Abbas has shown that he has no desire to sign a peace deal with Israel. But even if he did, what would it accomplish? Obama is right: true peace must be made between the people. The lack of such a peace will be Abbas’s most distinct, and unforgivable, legacy.

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