Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 2013

Slice of Gazan Life: Baker Bombers

In recent weeks, the New York Times has been working hard to paint those bent on using violence against Israel in the most attractive light as possible. It memorably used the cover story of its Sunday magazine on March 18 to allow a dedicated opponent of Zionism to falsely portray the architects of the next intifada as civil rights advocates. That polemic eclipses their most recent attempt to humanize terrorists, in terms of the story’s political intent. But today’s feature on the latest pastry craze in Gaza is in its own way just as outrageous.

The piece, slugged under the category of “Gaza Journal” with the headline “Ex-Prisoners Bring Taste of West Bank to Gaza,” concerns the activities of two Palestinians who were released from Israeli jails as part of the ransom deal in which kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was freed. The pair opened a beachfront shop in which they sell a particular dessert that is associated with the West Bank city of Nablus, from which they have been exiled. The Times portrays the two as a couple of Horatio Alger-style strivers who are not only working hard but whose efforts illustrate the fact that Gazans no longer have easy access to the cuisine of Nablus because of Israeli restrictions. But anyone seeking to use this as either an illustration of Israeli perfidy or the pluck of the Palestinians needs to sift through most of the Times pastry puffery to the bottom of the piece to see why Nadu Abu Turki and Hamouda Sala were the guests of the Israeli prison service until their Hamas overlords sprung them: they were both convicted of planting bombs and conspiring to commit murder as members of Hamas terror cells.

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In recent weeks, the New York Times has been working hard to paint those bent on using violence against Israel in the most attractive light as possible. It memorably used the cover story of its Sunday magazine on March 18 to allow a dedicated opponent of Zionism to falsely portray the architects of the next intifada as civil rights advocates. That polemic eclipses their most recent attempt to humanize terrorists, in terms of the story’s political intent. But today’s feature on the latest pastry craze in Gaza is in its own way just as outrageous.

The piece, slugged under the category of “Gaza Journal” with the headline “Ex-Prisoners Bring Taste of West Bank to Gaza,” concerns the activities of two Palestinians who were released from Israeli jails as part of the ransom deal in which kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was freed. The pair opened a beachfront shop in which they sell a particular dessert that is associated with the West Bank city of Nablus, from which they have been exiled. The Times portrays the two as a couple of Horatio Alger-style strivers who are not only working hard but whose efforts illustrate the fact that Gazans no longer have easy access to the cuisine of Nablus because of Israeli restrictions. But anyone seeking to use this as either an illustration of Israeli perfidy or the pluck of the Palestinians needs to sift through most of the Times pastry puffery to the bottom of the piece to see why Nadu Abu Turki and Hamouda Sala were the guests of the Israeli prison service until their Hamas overlords sprung them: they were both convicted of planting bombs and conspiring to commit murder as members of Hamas terror cells.

The conceit of the piece is to show how plucky Palestinians have adapted to onerous Israeli measures that have prevented people in Gaza from consuming nabulsia, a variant of the kenafeh dessert popular in Nablus. This is a special hardship for those West Bankers whose terrorist activities have led to actions that stranded them in Gaza. So for the apparently not inconsiderable number of homesick bomb builders and snipers stuck in the strip, the two ex-prisoners’ bakery is a godsend.

Were the point of the article to show us how these terrorists have changed their ways and traded murder for pastry, it might have been a tale of redemption. But there is nothing of the sort in the piece. Instead, we are left with the impression that the two dessert-makers are merely biding their time selling nabulsia simply because their main occupation—trying to kill Jews—has been taken away from them by being deposited in Gaza.

As the Times notes toward the bottom of the piece:

For Mr. Abu Turki and Mr. Salah, the kenafeh business represents a kind of re-entry into normal society.

Mr. Abu Turki was convicted by Israel and sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to murder, stone-throwing, planting a bomb and membership in an illegal organization — the military wing of Hamas — according to an Israel Prison Service list of those released under the Shalit deal.

Mr. Salah, another Hamas member, was sentenced to 22 years for conspiracy to murder, planting a bomb and shooting at people. They were among about 160 released prisoners to be exiled to Gaza.

But nowhere in the piece is there any sign of remorse about their murderous activities or a decision to try something else. The only line in the piece that alludes to their current politics is the comment of one that Gaza is “an open air prison.”

But if those living there resent the fact that they no longer have free access to jobs in Israel or travel to the West Bank, they can thank Abu Turki, Salah and their Hamas overlords for that. The border is closed except for humanitarian cases that receive medical care in Israeli hospitals specifically because Hamas has waged war on the Jewish state, launching terror attacks intended to kidnap, kill and maim people. Also unmentioned in the article is the fact that the Islamist tyranny there has continued to use the strip as a launching pad for rocket fire at Israeli towns and villages.

Peace will be possible when Palestinians give up their dream of destroying Israel—a goal that is integral to Hamas ideology—and concentrate on more productive activities. But so long as Hamas rules Gaza—and seeks to extend their hold to the West Bank—that won’t be possible. Hope will come the day we read stories like this in the Times in which ex-terrorists renounce their past rather than merely grouse about its consequences. The taste of nabulsia can’t wipe away Hamas’s record of terror or the consciences of two bakers with blood on their hands. 

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The Stunning Public Shift on Same-Sex Marriage

The velocity of change in public attitudes on same-sex marriage–from being unimaginable not long ago to being fairly commonplace today and probably dominant tomorrow–is extraordinary, even unprecedented.

One obvious indicator of that is public opinion polls; another is the number of elected officials who are reversing their past position on gay marriage. We’re now at the point where embracing federalism–letting states rather than the Supreme Court decide the issue–defines the most reliably conservative position. Republicans who support same-sex marriage, from former Vice President Richard Cheney to Senator Rob Portman, (thankfully) aren’t in danger of excommunication. In fact, I know of almost no critic of gay marriage who relishes talking about the issue. 

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The velocity of change in public attitudes on same-sex marriage–from being unimaginable not long ago to being fairly commonplace today and probably dominant tomorrow–is extraordinary, even unprecedented.

One obvious indicator of that is public opinion polls; another is the number of elected officials who are reversing their past position on gay marriage. We’re now at the point where embracing federalism–letting states rather than the Supreme Court decide the issue–defines the most reliably conservative position. Republicans who support same-sex marriage, from former Vice President Richard Cheney to Senator Rob Portman, (thankfully) aren’t in danger of excommunication. In fact, I know of almost no critic of gay marriage who relishes talking about the issue. 

What explains this seismic shift? Books will be written examining this question. My own sense, more impressionistic than based on careful research, is that several factors are responsible for it. Changing mores is part of it, as is marriage having been delinked from certain past teleological assumptions. So are family members and friendships with people who have come out as gay. Much of it is generational, with huge majorities of young people supportive of gay marriage. And it’s undeniably true, I think, that the arguments advanced by people like Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan have carried the day, at least if you judge winning by persuading people to agree with your point of view.

I also believe that a central explanation for what we’re witnessing–and one related to the ingenuity and power of the Sullivan and Rauch arguments–is that they helped reposition the gay rights movement from libertine to conservative, from gays being a threat to our social order and institutions to wanting to be a respected part of them. They didn’t want to uproot marriage, they wanted to share in its blessings.

Once that shift occurred–once many Americans believed that the gay movement was de-radicalized and domesticated–much of the opposition to gay marriage began to dissipate. Not all at once, of course, and many Americans still oppose same sex marriage. (Ron Brownstein argues that that for the near future, “the nation appears locked onto a trajectory in which almost all reliably blue states will establish gay marriage (or civil unions) and possibly not a single reliably red state will follow.”) But because of the generational differences when it comes to gay marriage, there is little doubt where this issue is headed, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides.  

There will still be important issues to sort through, including how religious institutions and people of faith who oppose same sex marriage are treated. For example, will orthodox Christian churches and educational institutions, if deemed to be bigoted based on their opposition to gay marriage or homosexual conduct, eventually be treated in law like racist organizations? Will mainstream evangelical colleges one day be dealt with in the same way we did Bob Jones University? (In the early 1980s Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating.) That may not happen. But if it were to occur, the debate could quickly shift in a different direction, from being seen by many as a celebration of individual rights to one that is viewed as an attack on religious liberty. 

For now, though, what has occurred is a stunning social shift, quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

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The Court, Marriage, and Federal Power

After two days of hearings on cases relating to the legality of measures opposing gay marriage, it is not possible to discern what will happen when the U.S. Supreme Court hands down its rulings. The puzzling and illogical decision on ObamaCare last year should inhibit court watchers from attempting to extrapolate votes from the exchanges between the justices and the attorneys arguing the cases. And given the not inconsiderable number of options that the court has before it when it finally issues rulings about California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the result could be just as confusing and inconclusive as the arguments that have been aired this week. That makes it as unlikely that the court will act to impose a right to gay marriage on the entire country as it is that it would attempt to prohibit it in those states where legislatures have enshrined it in law as a right.

But if, as gay marriage proponents seem to think, the tide of public opinion has irrevocably shifted on the issue from where it was in 1996 when Congress overwhelmingly passed and Bill Clinton signed DOMA, or even when the voters of California endorsed a constitutional amendment prohibiting state recognition of gay marriage, then it is possible that the court will listen to the polls and do on this issue what it did 40 years ago on abortion with Roe v. Wade. Irrespective of where one comes down on gay marriage, that would not be good for the country.

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After two days of hearings on cases relating to the legality of measures opposing gay marriage, it is not possible to discern what will happen when the U.S. Supreme Court hands down its rulings. The puzzling and illogical decision on ObamaCare last year should inhibit court watchers from attempting to extrapolate votes from the exchanges between the justices and the attorneys arguing the cases. And given the not inconsiderable number of options that the court has before it when it finally issues rulings about California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the result could be just as confusing and inconclusive as the arguments that have been aired this week. That makes it as unlikely that the court will act to impose a right to gay marriage on the entire country as it is that it would attempt to prohibit it in those states where legislatures have enshrined it in law as a right.

But if, as gay marriage proponents seem to think, the tide of public opinion has irrevocably shifted on the issue from where it was in 1996 when Congress overwhelmingly passed and Bill Clinton signed DOMA, or even when the voters of California endorsed a constitutional amendment prohibiting state recognition of gay marriage, then it is possible that the court will listen to the polls and do on this issue what it did 40 years ago on abortion with Roe v. Wade. Irrespective of where one comes down on gay marriage, that would not be good for the country.

Let’s first acknowledge that the culture war about homosexuality has been convincingly won by gays. Twenty years ago the already widespread acceptance of openly gay figures in pop culture had not transferred to the political sphere. Indeed, as recently as 2008, a staunch liberal like Barack Obama had to swear his opposition to gay marriage in order to be considered a mainstream political figure. But that is no longer the case. While national attitudes are still far from unanimous, anyone who would argue that the trend toward its acceptance is not accelerating to the point where opponents are becoming a beleaguered minority has not been paying attention. While defenders of traditional marriage can still put forward coherent arguments about the assault on the institution, appeals to the basic libertarian instincts of most Americans are winning the day for the pro-gay marriage point of view. Nor do the claims that gays marrying would materially damage straight marriages seem to have much traction. A political environment in which most people see the issue as one of equal rights for all citizens, as opposed to one about the distortion of the meaning of an institution to suit the whims of a minority, is not one that is sustainable for gay marriage opponents.

That is exactly why the courts can and should defer to the legislative process to sort out this issue.

It may be that the argument put forward that denying gay marriage is a violation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal protection guarantees is accepted by most Americans. If the high court were to unilaterally rewrite the meaning of the Constitution in that way, it might please not only the media and the pop culture world but perhaps a majority of the country. But such a broad stroke would create other problems that are best avoided.

While seemingly harmless, the rush to codify gay marriage as a constitutional right contains within it the possibility of creating a genuine danger of discrimination against religious faiths that oppose the idea. Catholic institutions (already under assault from federal mandates on reproductive issues) as well as Orthodox Jews, the Greek Orthodox and a host of evangelical Protestant denominations could be put in the awkward position of not just being labeled as bigots but as possible law breakers because of their beliefs due to new requirements to recognize and grant benefits due to spouses. If there is to be a right of gay marriage it must be enacted with stipulations that exempt religious institutions as well as clergy from any repercussions from a refusal to go along with the new consensus. That is the sort of sensible compromise that is far more likely to be brought about by the legislative process than a top-down court ruling.

Gay marriage advocates argue in reply that civil rights cannot be subject to the majority vote but rather must be protected by the law regardless of the whims of the mob, as the founding fathers would have understood the issue. They point to the struggle for racial equality in this country in which the courts played a necessary role in both protecting liberty and in prodding the legislatures and public opinion to catch up with what was right. But however much this issue is represented as one that can only be understood as a question of equality, the creation of a new right via the redefinition of an institution is not quite the same thing as righting the wrongs of slavery. The pro-gay marriage side must understand that it is asking the federal government to go into uncharted waters in that respect, as well as by taking this issue away from local institutions that have always governed interactions between the state and married couples.

Change is best achieved when it is accomplished via the democratic process and with respect for the rights of individual states to sort these things out according to the beliefs of its citizens.

If gay marriage advocates are confident, as they probably should be, that time and public opinion are on their side, then they should concentrate their efforts on winning their battle in the legislatures. That is something they have been doing with increasing success in recent years. Were the court to short-circuit that struggle it would set off a new and bitter struggle over the issue that would distort our politics and roil the culture for years and perhaps decades to come.

While the temptation to enact an all-or-nothing proposition in response to the baffling choices before it may entice some of the justices, they should listen to the voices of caution and avoid such a solution. That might mean punting on the California case, in which it can be argued that Prop 8’s supporters don’t have the standing to argue against its invalidation by state courts, as well as by striking down DOMA as a wrongful federal interference with a state matter.

That would disappoint conservatives who hope the court might save the country from the drive to enshrine gay marriage in various states. But in these cases, as in so many other issues, the greater wisdom always rests in restraining the power of the federal government to impose its will on the states and the people. If America is truly “evolving”—as liberals would have it—toward acceptance of gay marriage, then let it do so by the democratic process and not by a court eager to stay ahead of or get out of the way of public opinion.

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Democrats Still Spinning Their Wheels on Gun Control

Yesterday, as Nancy Pelosi insisted the Democrats had not “lost momentum” on their push for gun control, one thing became clear: the Democrats had absolutely lost momentum on their push for gun control. Pelosi may have been trying to put a brave face on the Democrats’ gun-ban failure, but she undermined her own words of encouragement in the same breath, the Hill reports:

“Say it doesn’t prevail, just for the sake of argument,” she said. “It argues all the more strongly for having the toughest; best; most effective background checks, instead of diluting the background checks, because we might not succeed with the assault weapons ban.”

But even more of an indication of the direction of this legislative battle than Pelosi’s comments was the reaction New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg received when he tried to threaten Democrats in pro-gun states.

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Yesterday, as Nancy Pelosi insisted the Democrats had not “lost momentum” on their push for gun control, one thing became clear: the Democrats had absolutely lost momentum on their push for gun control. Pelosi may have been trying to put a brave face on the Democrats’ gun-ban failure, but she undermined her own words of encouragement in the same breath, the Hill reports:

“Say it doesn’t prevail, just for the sake of argument,” she said. “It argues all the more strongly for having the toughest; best; most effective background checks, instead of diluting the background checks, because we might not succeed with the assault weapons ban.”

But even more of an indication of the direction of this legislative battle than Pelosi’s comments was the reaction New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg received when he tried to threaten Democrats in pro-gun states.

The Associated Press reports that since persuading voters and their elected representatives of the wisdom and utility of liberal gun legislation has favored conservatives and constitutionalists, President Obama and Bloomberg are going to try other methods: scare tactics, raw appeals to emotion through the president’s exploitation of the grief of families of Newtown victims, and lots and lots of money.

Democrats who represent pro-Second Amendment states are pushing back, however. The beauty of America’s cultural diversity is that many Americans live in states where they don’t have to ask their government’s permission to retrieve a soda or sandwich from their refrigerator, as New York’s Pop Czar would prefer. Those same voters often don’t like various other constitutional protections infringed upon, and their elected representatives know this. The AP notes that North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor are two prominent examples:

“I do not need someone from New York City to tell me how to handle crime in our state. I know that we can go after and prosecute criminals without the need to infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding North Dakotans,” Heitkamp said this week, citing the constitutional right to bear arms.

Heitkamp does not face re-election next year, but Pryor and five other Senate Democrats from Republican-leaning or closely divided states do. All six, from Southern and Western states, will face voters whose deep attachment to guns is unshakeable – not to mention opposition from the still-potent National Rifle Association, should they vote for restrictions the NRA opposes.

There’s that phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of Democrats: “will face voters.” Democrats keep forgetting about that part. The AP even does its part to try and help, as the press so often does, by mentioning that increased federal background checks for gun buyers would constitute “the remaining primary proposal pushed by Obama and many Democrats since 20 first-graders and six women were shot to death in December at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.”

The juxtaposition there is interesting, because the increased background checks–some of which are eminently sensible, unlike the random attempted gun ban–would not seem to have prevented the Newtown tragedy. But this is not really the point, as evidenced by the president’s strategy of attempting to establish his moral superiority instead of productively partaking in crafting meaningful legislation. And it is also nothing new. This hews closely to the habit of the president and his party, whether it be global warming legislation that his own government administrators admit won’t curb global warming; universal health insurance legislation that the Congressional Budget Office admits will likely kick millions of Americans off their existing plans and will incentivize those who tend not to buy insurance to continue not buying insurance; or “consumer protection” financial legislation that reinforces the federal government’s penchant for bailouts and solidifies the concept of “too big to fail” as federal policy underwritten by taxpayer money.

Voters are already wary of policies they see as violating their constitutional freedoms. They will only be more so as the Obama administration continues to push legislation that perpetuates, rather than solves, the problems it’s designed to address.

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Netanyahu Apology Short-Sighted

Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dampen optimism regarding the restoration of Turkey-Israel ties following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for the botched interception of the Mavi Marmara. Make no mistake, the apology is a disaster. Not only will it not lead to a revival of Israel-Turkey ties, but it will—in the long run—make them worse. Netanyahu has affirmed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy. Wishful thinking—be it Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza or Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon—does not bring peace so long as enemies believe that terrorism or, in Erdoğan’s case, its facilitation and his support, has paid dividends.

Erdoğan is a deeply ideological man who, at his core, does not believe Israel should exist. It is a mistake for Turkey-watchers to dismiss Erdoğan’s rants, most recently his description of Zionism as a crime against humanity, as merely posturing for his central Anatolian base. Projection is perhaps the most corrosive mistake in which any analyst can engage. Incitement is not simply a strategy; sometimes, it truly is heartfelt. Just as with Yasir Arafat. And Khaled Meshaal. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Mohammad Khatami. And Kim Jong-un.

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Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dampen optimism regarding the restoration of Turkey-Israel ties following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for the botched interception of the Mavi Marmara. Make no mistake, the apology is a disaster. Not only will it not lead to a revival of Israel-Turkey ties, but it will—in the long run—make them worse. Netanyahu has affirmed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy. Wishful thinking—be it Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza or Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon—does not bring peace so long as enemies believe that terrorism or, in Erdoğan’s case, its facilitation and his support, has paid dividends.

Erdoğan is a deeply ideological man who, at his core, does not believe Israel should exist. It is a mistake for Turkey-watchers to dismiss Erdoğan’s rants, most recently his description of Zionism as a crime against humanity, as merely posturing for his central Anatolian base. Projection is perhaps the most corrosive mistake in which any analyst can engage. Incitement is not simply a strategy; sometimes, it truly is heartfelt. Just as with Yasir Arafat. And Khaled Meshaal. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Mohammad Khatami. And Kim Jong-un.

Erdoğan’s temper-tantrums may make him look like a buffoon in Western eyes, but he is a man deeply consumed by a sense of grievance. This is why he has sued political cartoonists for little more sin than depicting him as a cat tangled in a ball of string. Stacked courts ensure he wins his cases, and bolster his sense of righteousness. Every time he engages in brinkmanship, he finds himself rewarded.

What’s next in Turkey-Israel relations? Certainly not rapprochement. By paying compensation to the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, Netanyahu is effectively funding terrorists. The Mavi Marmara had one purpose: supplying Hamas. After all, the health of Gazans is generally better than that of Turks. The Turkish press is arguing that the lifting of the Gaza blockade—irrespective of Hamas’ actions—is now looming.

What’s Erdoğan’s next step? He has announced that he will soon go to Gaza during which trip he will renew his calls for lifting the blockade and enjoy Hamas treating him like a conquering hero. Already, the Palestinian Authority is nervous over how Erdoğan might bolster its terrorist brethren. Make no mistake: It’s not just Obama to blame for what comes next. Netanyahu could always have said no.

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When the Crisis Comes, Will the Navy Be Ready?

I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

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I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

The vessel I was on had been delayed repeatedly by repairs and was not in top condition. U.S. Marines putting themselves in harm’s way deserve better than open sewage pipes in their restrooms, or dysfunctional drink machines in the mess. Nor should they have to worry about water rationing because of water plant shutdowns, closing the gym, showers, and draining water from the sinks. The impact sequestration will have on the Navy, some senior officers warned in the mess, will be felt most not this year but in the very near future. Deferred maintenance—some ships funded at only 15 percent, if not less—mean effectively that those ships will be lost: the cost of fixing chronic problems will only increase. Worse, however, is the risk that those ships whose operations are funded will be run into the ground without the budget for maintenance to prevent catastrophic failures.

Congressmen posturing as supportive of the Navy are only making matters worse by constraining them. When the Navy seeks to scrap or sell some ships, congressmen afraid of declining ship numbers mandate that the Navy must keep them instead, but do not provide the money for their basic upkeep or function, making the overall strains worse.

North Korea is already testing the United States, and Iran’s leadership is also overconfident. The danger is not that the United States will become embroiled in a proactive war, but rather that our adversaries’ miscalculations could involve us in a reactive one. Let us hope that the commander-in-chief and Congress do not assume that the Navy will be ready or that the United States will always be able to project its power. Aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships are maintenance heavy and take constant investment. At the best of times, perhaps half of them were ready at any time. In five years, I doubt one-quarter of them will be.

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The Missing Element in Western Aid to the Syrian Rebels

Showing once again the difficulty of keeping any “covert action” truly secret, the news media have been full of stories in recent days about how the U.S. is providing assistance to arm and train the Syrian rebels.

The New York Times actually tracked the flow of aircraft delivering arms bought by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and channeled through Turkey and Jordan with American advice and assistance. The Wall Street Journal, in the meantime, reports that the American intelligence community is sharing information with the rebels, while the Associated Press writes of the CIA training effort going on in Jordan for secular rebels.

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Showing once again the difficulty of keeping any “covert action” truly secret, the news media have been full of stories in recent days about how the U.S. is providing assistance to arm and train the Syrian rebels.

The New York Times actually tracked the flow of aircraft delivering arms bought by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and channeled through Turkey and Jordan with American advice and assistance. The Wall Street Journal, in the meantime, reports that the American intelligence community is sharing information with the rebels, while the Associated Press writes of the CIA training effort going on in Jordan for secular rebels.

These are significant steps in the right direction–toward helping to overthrow Bashar Assad–even if they do raise questions about why the U.S. isn’t maximizing its influence by providing arms directly. There is, however, a large missing element: No one is providing aid to the rebels to stop Assad from bombing them. With the regime having lost control of much of northern Syria, its best bet to keep the rebels off balance and to prevent the establishment of an alternative government on Syrian soil is to use aircraft and missiles to spread indiscriminate terror in rebel-held areas. The rebels lack the capacity to down Syrian aircraft or to stop missile launchings.

In part this is because the U.S. has lobbied its allies not to provide portable anti-aircraft missiles such as the Stinger to the rebels for fear they could wind up falling into the wrong hands. This is a legitimate concern, but if we are not going to allow the rebels to defend themselves, this argues all the more for the U.S. and our allies to take action ourselves to stop the Syrian air force.

This would not be hard to do, the most direct and effective option simply being to create a no-fly zone across the entire country and shoot down any Syrian aircraft that take to the skies. This could be complimented with air strikes on missile launchers and would probably necessitate the suppression of Syrian air defenses. This could be done without significant risk to American and coalition aircraft–witness how easily Israeli aircraft have penetrated Syrian airspace to bomb a nuclear reactor or, more recently, a convoy apparently transporting weapons to Hezbollah.

A less robust approach–but still better than nothing–would be to use Patriot missile batteries in Turkey to enforce a more limited no-fly zone along Syria’s northern border. These batteries could not only stop Syrian aircraft but also Scud missiles. This was the option advocated in a letter sent last week to the administration by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, who also urged President Obama “to provide more robust assistance directly to vetted opposition groups.”

Such steps are long overdue. Otherwise, the killing will simply continue and Syria will sink deeper into chaos, with extremist groups gaining ever more sway and the conflict spreading ever farther afield.

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EPA: Hiding One’s Light Under a Bushel

The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, a few months after Earth Day had demonstrated to even the most obtuse politician that the American population wanted the environment cleaned up. So what has happened to the American environment in the 42 years that the EPA has been leading the cleanup effort? The environment has improved markedly.

In 1970 31 million tons of sulphur dioxide, a prime contributor to smog, was emitted into the atmosphere. In 2008 it was 11 million tons. In 1970 34 million tons of volatile organic compounds were emitted. In 2008 it was 16 million. In 1970 204 million tons of carbon monoxide; in 2008 it was 72 million. The EPA recently declared carbon dioxide a pollutant (which means we pollute the atmosphere every time we exhale). And the only major country in the world where carbon dioxide emissions are declining? The United States. We emitted less CO2 in 2012 than in 1992. Water pollution has similarly abated. Unhealthy air days in major U.S. cities these days are a rarity. Even Los Angeles had only 18 in all of 2011. Manhattan had exactly none.

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The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, a few months after Earth Day had demonstrated to even the most obtuse politician that the American population wanted the environment cleaned up. So what has happened to the American environment in the 42 years that the EPA has been leading the cleanup effort? The environment has improved markedly.

In 1970 31 million tons of sulphur dioxide, a prime contributor to smog, was emitted into the atmosphere. In 2008 it was 11 million tons. In 1970 34 million tons of volatile organic compounds were emitted. In 2008 it was 16 million. In 1970 204 million tons of carbon monoxide; in 2008 it was 72 million. The EPA recently declared carbon dioxide a pollutant (which means we pollute the atmosphere every time we exhale). And the only major country in the world where carbon dioxide emissions are declining? The United States. We emitted less CO2 in 2012 than in 1992. Water pollution has similarly abated. Unhealthy air days in major U.S. cities these days are a rarity. Even Los Angeles had only 18 in all of 2011. Manhattan had exactly none.

And this despite the fact that the population of the country has doubled, the GDP has more than tripled in real terms, and the number of cars and trucks hugely increased.

You would think that the EPA would want to highlight the tremendous progress that’s been made over its bureaucratic lifetime. But try to winkle the statistics out of its website. They either aren’t there, or they are hard to find, or they are incomplete, or they hard to compare with each other.

Why would this be? Simple: Bureaucracies want to manage problems not solve them. Solving the problem a bureaucracy was created to handle might have an adverse impact on its funding, and bureaucracies measure their prestige by the size of their budgets. So success, in effect, is bad news for bureaucrats.

Likewise, the various environmental organizations are at great pains to not tout how much progress has been achieved. That might cause people to put away their checkbooks.

As a result, one of the great American success stories of the last 40 years—just how clean the American environment is getting—is hidden from sight.

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Obama in Israel: Hope over Experience?

I was traveling last week, so have not had an opportunity until now to comment on President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem and his visit to Israel in general. I only now read the speech and, like many of Obama’s speeches, it is a rhetorical masterpiece. It is also a tacit repudiation of his entire first term, which began, as far as Middle East policy was concerned, with his speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

This was a conscious attempt by Obama to hit the “reset button” on U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which he thought had been harmed by George W. Bush’s hawkish ways. Obama went so far to ingratiate himself with the Arabs that he even seemed to equate Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland”–as if the Palestinians had been the victims of genocide too. Obama pointedly did not visit Israel on that swing through the Middle East and subsequently he put unprecedented pressure on the government of Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank–not as the ending point of talks with the Palestinians but as a precondition for such talks.

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I was traveling last week, so have not had an opportunity until now to comment on President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem and his visit to Israel in general. I only now read the speech and, like many of Obama’s speeches, it is a rhetorical masterpiece. It is also a tacit repudiation of his entire first term, which began, as far as Middle East policy was concerned, with his speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

This was a conscious attempt by Obama to hit the “reset button” on U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which he thought had been harmed by George W. Bush’s hawkish ways. Obama went so far to ingratiate himself with the Arabs that he even seemed to equate Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland”–as if the Palestinians had been the victims of genocide too. Obama pointedly did not visit Israel on that swing through the Middle East and subsequently he put unprecedented pressure on the government of Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank–not as the ending point of talks with the Palestinians but as a precondition for such talks.

As we now know, this gambit backfired spectacularly. There has been no progress at all in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 2009–in fact no meaningful negotiations at all because Obama set the bar so high for holding talks that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has felt compelled to make even more sweeping demands that Prime Minister Netanyahu could not accept, certainly not at the start of negotiations. The Cairo speech did not even work at the level of public relations because it set Arab expectations for the U.S. so high that they could never be fulfilled. The result is that, as the Pew survey notes, Obama’s approval rating in the Muslim world has fallen from 34 percent in 2009 to just 15 percent today.

Without explicitly repudiating his Cairo address, Obama took a decidedly different tack in Jerusalem. He devoted the first part of the speech to expressing sympathy and admiration for Israel and making clear that he recognizes that the Jewish right to a state is not simply rooted in Holocaust guilt; it is an age-old bond between a people and their land. It is hard to imagine any American president doing a better job of paying tribute to the state of Israel and its people.

He did not, of course, just leave it there. And there the problem begins.

Toward the end of his speech he pivoted from praising Israelis to exhorting them to make peace with Palestinians. “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized,” he said to the cheers and applause of his Israeli audience. One wonders if he would have gotten similar cheers and applause in the West Bank or Gaza Strip if he had addressed a large audience of students–most of them Hamas or Fatah members–and told them that Israel’s right too must be recognized.

Obama recognizes that persistent Palestinian unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a problem, but he imagines that somehow it can be wished away in another round of negotiations. “Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who’s dedicated to its destruction,” he said. “But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.”

Actually, there is plenty of cause to doubt that Abbas and Fayyad are true partners for peace–not necessarily because their intentions are bad but simply because they do not have the power to deliver peace. If even a veteran revolutionary like Yasir Arafat, who was an icon to his own people, could not in the end make painful concessions such as giving up the “right of return,” what chance is there that two unpopular leaders with much less legitimacy can do so? And even if by some miracle Abbas and Fayyad could be convinced to sign a final status agreement, how would they possibly bring along the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip?

Obama’s only reference to Hamas in the entire speech–the only one!–was this one sentence: “Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.” True, Israel has a right to expect this–but what strategy does Obama offer for making Hamas renounce its entire ideology and history and recognize Israel’s right to exist?

On this issue he was silent–as he was silent on offering any actual blueprint for advancing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Such tedious details are presumably left to Secretary of State John Kerry to work out. That has been a pattern with Obama that even his supporters recognize–he is much better at soaring rhetoric than at nuts-and-bolts implementation.

The Jerusalem speech was undoubtedly a great improvement over the Cairo speech–Obama now at least seems to recognize that he has a better chance of winning concessions from Israel if he embraces rather than berates the Jewish state. But at heart the Jerusalem speech suffers from the same problem as the Cairo one of raising unreasonable expectations. Given that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict has been going on since before the birth of Israel, it is perhaps time for American policymakers to give up the dream that they will somehow solve this intractable situation in the next presidential term. Yet Obama is the latest American leader to imagine that he can work miracles in the Holy Land. In this regard, his Jerusalem address was yet another triumph of hope over experience.

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The Life and Fate of Boris Berezovsky

In late 2009, Russia lost a man it had already begun to forget. Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the “shock therapy” designed to transition Russia immediately from socialism to capitalism, died at the very young age of 53. Gaidar was sorely underappreciated, because the troubled Yeltsin years that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union were marked by hardship and the wiping out of Russians’ savings. Gaidar was a staunch proponent of privatization because he understood the primacy of private property in any aspiring democracy.

Aside from Gorbachev and Yeltsin, few in Russia could be said to have had as much influence on the new Russia as the brilliant Gaidar. And few could be said to have personified the Russia inherited from Gaidar more than Boris Berezovsky, who died in exile in England over the weekend. Berezovsky was one of the original “oligarchs,” who got rich quickly in the new Russia and used his wealth to influence Russian politics, first by backing Yeltsin and then by helping to elevate Vladimir Putin. Putin would betray Berezovsky by seeking to undo much of Gaidar’s privatization and wrest control of the oligarchs’ assets. Some challenged Putin, like the still-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky; some wavered, like Berezovsky; some played along, like Berezovsky’s former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky put two and two together and fled Russia, never to return. He sued Abramovich in a London court, which ruled against Berezovsky in 2012. The suit nearly bankrupted Berezovsky of his wealth and, it seemed from his reaction, his very will to live.

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In late 2009, Russia lost a man it had already begun to forget. Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the “shock therapy” designed to transition Russia immediately from socialism to capitalism, died at the very young age of 53. Gaidar was sorely underappreciated, because the troubled Yeltsin years that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union were marked by hardship and the wiping out of Russians’ savings. Gaidar was a staunch proponent of privatization because he understood the primacy of private property in any aspiring democracy.

Aside from Gorbachev and Yeltsin, few in Russia could be said to have had as much influence on the new Russia as the brilliant Gaidar. And few could be said to have personified the Russia inherited from Gaidar more than Boris Berezovsky, who died in exile in England over the weekend. Berezovsky was one of the original “oligarchs,” who got rich quickly in the new Russia and used his wealth to influence Russian politics, first by backing Yeltsin and then by helping to elevate Vladimir Putin. Putin would betray Berezovsky by seeking to undo much of Gaidar’s privatization and wrest control of the oligarchs’ assets. Some challenged Putin, like the still-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky; some wavered, like Berezovsky; some played along, like Berezovsky’s former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky put two and two together and fled Russia, never to return. He sued Abramovich in a London court, which ruled against Berezovsky in 2012. The suit nearly bankrupted Berezovsky of his wealth and, it seemed from his reaction, his very will to live.

Of course, just as Berezovsky’s life and fate were typical of post-Yeltsin Russia, his death could not come without intrigue. The headlines of the first three stories on Berezovsky’s death in the Guardian seemed almost inevitable. Soon after Berezovsky was found dead the paper published a story titled “Boris Berezovsky: a tale of revenge, betrayal and feuds with Putin.” The next day came the logical follow-up: “Boris Berezovsky’s death leaves friends suspecting foul play,” followed by “No evidence that Boris Berezovsky was killed, say police.”

More than anything, the Guardian’s Luke Harding points out, Berezovsky misread Putin from the outset:

Berezovsky had reckoned that his friend would be a pliable successor – and that he, the ultimate Kremlin insider, would continue to pull the strings. Quickly, however, it became apparent that Putin had his own vision of Russia: a less democratic place, in which the country’s spy agencies would play a vanguard role, and with Putin in charge. The two clashed; Putin seized Berezovsky’s ORT TV station; and Berezovsky decamped to London. Their feud was nasty and would lead ultimately to Berezovsky’s death at the age of 67 in exile.

Yet according to a Russian journalist who interviewed Berezovsky on Friday, the oligarch claimed his greatest miscalculation was “that Russia is so dear to me that I cannot be an émigré.” Exile was killing him, but there was no way he could return to Russia.

Berezovsky was hopelessly devoted to somehow deposing Putin. It was never clear whether this mission was primarily driven by greed, homesickness, delusion, vengeance, or guilt; probably it was a potent mix of them all, impossible to untangle. But it is the guilt that is most interesting, because it would be almost noble. And nobility was something Berezovsky’s vast wealth and power could never buy him. It was not self-aggrandizement for Berezovsky to claim he created Putin—he did—but neither was it something of which he would have wanted to boast. Thus Berezovsky’s death was a tragedy but, to many Russians, so was his life.

There is a Shakespearean quality to Berezovsky’s story. And in the suspicion that Putin must have had something to do with Berezovsky’s death there is something distinctly representative of the Russia Berezovsky helped create, a place in which nothing is believable until it strains the imagination and defies mundane explanation. In his haunting new book on Russia’s cultural mourning of its Stalinist past, Alexander Etkind writes:

I would speculate that the historical processes of catastrophic scale traumatize the first generation of descendants, and it is their daughters and sons—the grandchildren of the victims, perpetrators, and onlookers—who produce the work of mourning for their grandparents: mass graves for the generation of terror, trauma for the first postcatastrophic generation, and mourning for the second.

Berezovsky was always too busy to mourn the past. And one of the great ironies of the Berezovsky tale is that the man he helped install, Putin, has tried to rescue elements of Stalin’s brutal legacy from mourning by insisting that some of it deserves celebration. Berezovsky was part of a generation that ran as fast they could away from Soviet collectivism and Communism, presciently aware that the past was in hot pursuit. Yet the threat to Berezovsky was right in front of him, in the future he so energetically crafted. Like most who spend too much time looking over their shoulder, he never saw it coming.

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The Pathetic Conclusion of the American Mission in Iraq

It’s amusing to watch senior American officials doing their best to put a smiling face on the repeated American failures in Iraq since the departure of our troops at the end of 2011. Thus the Washington Post quotes one “senior US official involved in Iraq policy” as follows: “The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be.”

That’s not how the Iraqis see it. In their very same article, Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy prime minister and the senior Sunni in the government, is quoted as saying, “No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq. America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”

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It’s amusing to watch senior American officials doing their best to put a smiling face on the repeated American failures in Iraq since the departure of our troops at the end of 2011. Thus the Washington Post quotes one “senior US official involved in Iraq policy” as follows: “The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be.”

That’s not how the Iraqis see it. In their very same article, Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy prime minister and the senior Sunni in the government, is quoted as saying, “No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq. America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”

It’s hard to dispute Mutlak’s judgment, especially when the U.S. has had no luck in influencing Iraq’s conduct on the two most important issues of the day–Prime Minister Maliki’s growing tendency to use the security forces to target influential Sunni leaders and his unwillingness to interfere with Iranian flights to supply Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry once again raised the latter issue with Maliki during his quick visit to Baghdad–and predictably got nothing in response.

What a sad and pathetic conclusion to a decade of American intervention in Iraq. Having made vast sacrifices to secure that country’s future, we have now voluntarily walked away, with consequences that grow more serious by the day.

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The Battle Over the Surge

In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

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In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

As Gordon puts it:

Much of the discussion … was dominated by [Secretary of State] Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which “nothing is going right” and instead focus on “core interests” like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting “mass killings” — attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

But [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.

It’s now obvious that those who favored the surge were correct and those advocating the alternatives–whether withdrawal or a “light footprint” counterinsurgency or retreating to bases to “ride out” the sectarian violence–were not. Yet even those who believed at the time that the surge was clearly the correct strategy also had to concede that the arguments marshaled by Secretary Rice and her top aides were serious ones and worth taking into account. Were sectarian demons that had been unleashed now uncontainable? Were we beyond the point when no application of forces was likely to make a discernible difference? Had the Sadirist elements defeated the more moderate Shia ones?  

Which brings me to my second point. When asked by ABC’s William Lawrence to look back over the first two years of his presidency, John Kennedy said this:

I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.  

It is in the nature of things that in America, the president is the individual who has to sort through competing counsel and decide which course of action to take. The surge was, as Gordon points out, a fateful one for George W. Bush, and in this instance Bush embraced a new war strategy in Iraq that required him to jettison the counsel of his most trusted foreign policy advisor (Secretary Rice, who eventually embraced the surge strategy), to say nothing of the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq; John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command; military analysts; the entire Democratic Party; much of the Republican Party; most of the foreign policy establishment; the Iraq Study Group; and public opinion. It was a remarkable moment in presidential leadership. 

It’s also fair to say, I think, that as much of the world seems to be spinning out of control–with ill-advised decisions by President Obama having undone many of the gains in Iraq and worrisome-to-ominous developments occurring in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Georgia, North Korea, Mali, Sudan, Russia and elsewhere–President Bush’s successor is learning the hard way that it’s easier to make the speeches than it is to make the judgments.

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Why Liberals Still Detest Fox News

More than 16 years after its founding and 11 years after it assumed its current perch as the most-watched cable news network, Fox News remains the favorite punching bag of the left. Liberals take it as an article of faith that Fox is not merely biased but a travesty that serious people should ignore. But the notion that there is something unholy about what is broadcast on Fox or that its mix of news and opinion is uniquely biased has never stood up to scrutiny.

That assumption was once again on display this past week in a New York Times review of a new biography of Fox founder Roger Ailes.  Veteran Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani had little patience for Zev Chafets’s new book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, because it presents Ailes in a not unsympathetic light and takes down some of the common liberal charges about Fox and its on-air personalities. According to Kakutani, Chafets should have focused on its “role in accelerating partisanship in our increasingly polarized society” and how it “frames its reports from the conservative point of view.” Implicit in these lines is the belief that there is something exceptional in a broadcast network that has a political point of view or that what Fox does is so egregious when it is compared to its competitors.

Refutation of these prejudices comes from no less an authority than an icon of establishment liberalism: the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In its State of the News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism, Pew details, among other interesting tidbits the percentages of news reporting and opinion on the three biggest cable news channels. According to the study, the breakdown of MSNBC shows that a whopping 85 percent of its airtime is taken up with opinion, compared to 55 percent of the time on Fox and 45 percent of CNN’s air.

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More than 16 years after its founding and 11 years after it assumed its current perch as the most-watched cable news network, Fox News remains the favorite punching bag of the left. Liberals take it as an article of faith that Fox is not merely biased but a travesty that serious people should ignore. But the notion that there is something unholy about what is broadcast on Fox or that its mix of news and opinion is uniquely biased has never stood up to scrutiny.

That assumption was once again on display this past week in a New York Times review of a new biography of Fox founder Roger Ailes.  Veteran Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani had little patience for Zev Chafets’s new book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, because it presents Ailes in a not unsympathetic light and takes down some of the common liberal charges about Fox and its on-air personalities. According to Kakutani, Chafets should have focused on its “role in accelerating partisanship in our increasingly polarized society” and how it “frames its reports from the conservative point of view.” Implicit in these lines is the belief that there is something exceptional in a broadcast network that has a political point of view or that what Fox does is so egregious when it is compared to its competitors.

Refutation of these prejudices comes from no less an authority than an icon of establishment liberalism: the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In its State of the News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism, Pew details, among other interesting tidbits the percentages of news reporting and opinion on the three biggest cable news channels. According to the study, the breakdown of MSNBC shows that a whopping 85 percent of its airtime is taken up with opinion, compared to 55 percent of the time on Fox and 45 percent of CNN’s air.

These numbers tell us that while the majority of what Fox broadcasts is conservative opinion, it is a pittance when compared to the volume of uniformly liberal commentary on MSNBC. If more of CNN’s airtime is taken up with reporting than on Fox, it must be remembered that the vast majority of the opinions heard on that network is also liberal. And when that is combined with the heavy liberal tilt on the original three national networks, NBC, ABC and especially CBS (the home of the supposedly authoritative 60 Minutes which is so soft on the head of the Democratic Party that even one of its hosts admits it can be relied upon never to discomfit President Obama), it makes Fox’s conservative views one of the few places where alternatives to the left can be found.

If Kakutani and the legions of liberals who blast Fox reporters for not reporting the news from a liberal perspective think there is something wrong about that it is because they are so used to dominating the news media, both print and broadcast, that they still think Ailes has done something wrong in providing viewers with another way of looking at the world.

Of course, the real difference between Fox and its competitors is not so much its divergence from liberalism as Ailes’s honesty about the fact that his network has a different frame of reference.

For decades, mainstream news icons like Walter Cronkite maintained the pretense of objectivity while tilting his enormously influential broadcasts to the left. But while belief in his impartiality and that of almost all of his colleagues on CBS and the other big two of that time was based on myth rather than truth, it was more believable than the willingness of his successors as well as many of those seen on MSNBC and CNN—including those that report as well as those who merely opine—to continue to pretend that they aren’t ideologues.

Fox’s success is rooted in its honesty about its point of view as well as the fact that the uniform liberalism of the other networks has left the field wide open for a conservative alternative. What Ailes and his backer Rupert Murdoch did was to find an underserved niche of the news market. Only in this case that niche is made up of approximately half of the American people. No wonder liberals resent it so bitterly.

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Turks Illustrate Limits of Obama’s Magic

President Obama was already basking in the good review of his trip to Israel when he added what is being seen as yet another bold stroke to his list of accomplishments. Just before he left Israel, he brokered a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which the two seemingly resolved the long running dispute about the Mavi Marmara incident. The president is being praised for his persistence in pushing Netanyahu to make the call and for persuading his good friend Erdoğan to accept it. This has caused Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times to say that his “talent for arm-twisting” has “raised hopes” that the president might have similar success in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Though the Times is sober enough to note that the Israel-Palestinian tangle is sufficiently complicated as to resist even the president’s magic touch, it did accept the claim that the call “healed the rift between the two countries” at face value. But other sympathetic observers were not able to restrain their enthusiasm. Writing in Canada’s National Post, Jonathan Kay not only noted with satisfaction my appreciation for the improvement in Obama’s stand on Israel but also extolled the president’s efforts to achieve “a resumption of the Israel-Turkish alliance.”

But apparently the hosannas about the president’s achievement are a little premature. Less than a day after the supposed reconciliation Erdoğan was already backtracking, saying that the resumption of normal relations, let alone the old alliance between the two countries, was still on hold. It is to be hoped that a dose of reality will cool the ardor of those, like Kay, who believe Obama’s “much mocked faith in diplomacy and human rationality” has been vindicated.

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President Obama was already basking in the good review of his trip to Israel when he added what is being seen as yet another bold stroke to his list of accomplishments. Just before he left Israel, he brokered a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which the two seemingly resolved the long running dispute about the Mavi Marmara incident. The president is being praised for his persistence in pushing Netanyahu to make the call and for persuading his good friend Erdoğan to accept it. This has caused Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times to say that his “talent for arm-twisting” has “raised hopes” that the president might have similar success in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Though the Times is sober enough to note that the Israel-Palestinian tangle is sufficiently complicated as to resist even the president’s magic touch, it did accept the claim that the call “healed the rift between the two countries” at face value. But other sympathetic observers were not able to restrain their enthusiasm. Writing in Canada’s National Post, Jonathan Kay not only noted with satisfaction my appreciation for the improvement in Obama’s stand on Israel but also extolled the president’s efforts to achieve “a resumption of the Israel-Turkish alliance.”

But apparently the hosannas about the president’s achievement are a little premature. Less than a day after the supposed reconciliation Erdoğan was already backtracking, saying that the resumption of normal relations, let alone the old alliance between the two countries, was still on hold. It is to be hoped that a dose of reality will cool the ardor of those, like Kay, who believe Obama’s “much mocked faith in diplomacy and human rationality” has been vindicated.

Erdoğan’s double dealing on normalization even after Netanyahu’s call is hardly surprising. This is, after all, the same person who recently compared Zionism to fascism and whose regime has encouraged anti-Semitism as it transformed a secular republic into an Islamist regime in all but name. The Mavi Marmara incident, in which a flotilla of ships sponsored by Turkey attempted to run the Israeli blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, was intended to provoke an Israeli attack. While, as Netanyahu admitted, the raid on the ship appears to have been botched by Israeli forces, Ankara’s purpose was to create a pretext for a complete break. This was the end of a process begun years earlier by Erdoğan, not a spontaneous reaction to anything Israel had done.

Thus, no one should be holding their breath waiting for Turkey’s ambassador to return to Israel anytime soon. As for resuming the alliance, it needs to be understood that all those Turks that worked to create the formerly warm relations between Ankara and Jerusalem are no longer involved in the government. Indeed, the main constituency for close relations was secular military officers, and Erdoğan has jailed many of them.

As for what Kay termed a “pride-swallowing apology,” it should also be understood that it didn’t take any “arm-twisting” or diplomatic skill from Obama to force Israel to express regret for the Mavi Marmara incident. Netanyahu had done so years ago. He had also previously offered compensation for the families of those killed while attacking Israeli soldiers on the ship. Netanyahu’s government has made several efforts to solve the impasse over the incident but had been repeatedly rebuffed, not just because of insufficient contrition on Israel’s part but because Erdoğan had no interest in ending the dispute. Indeed, in the day after the phone call, Erdoğan reiterated his determination to make a state visit to Gaza solidifying his alliance with the Hamas terrorists.

So long as Turkey is committed to supporting Hamas, normal relations will be difficult, if not impossible. While there may be issues on which the two countries may be able to cooperate, such as the crisis in Syria, a resumption of the alliance between the Jewish state and Erdoğan’s Islamist state is a fantasy.

To point this out is not a criticism of Obama so much as it is reality check for those who are so besotted with the notion that American diplomacy can remake the Middle East in the image of America’s hopes. What little good the president may have done in brokering the Netanyahu-Erdoğan call should not be represented as a blueprint for a new diplomatic offensive from Obama or Secretary of State Kerry. The president’s faith in and friendship for Erdoğan calls his judgment into question. The same is true about his assertion that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace. The president didn’t solve the differences between Turkey and Israel because they are the product of a shift in Turkish politics that cannot be undone by anything Americans say or do. The same is true of any ideas about bridging the gap between Israel and Palestinian leaders who have no interest in signing a peace accord. 

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Trump, Malkin, and Dumbed Down Discourse

Sometimes you come across something that is both unusually shallow and yet (unintentionally) serves a useful public service. In this case, I have in mind the Twitter war between Michelle Malkin and Donald Trump. (You can follow it here courtesy of Mediaite.com.)

It’s perfect in its own way: witless, rude, angry, and content-free. He’s a “coward”; she’s a “dummy.” There’s no large issue being engaged and nothing clever in their exchange, making it worse than parody. And they don’t seem to know when to stop.

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Sometimes you come across something that is both unusually shallow and yet (unintentionally) serves a useful public service. In this case, I have in mind the Twitter war between Michelle Malkin and Donald Trump. (You can follow it here courtesy of Mediaite.com.)

It’s perfect in its own way: witless, rude, angry, and content-free. He’s a “coward”; she’s a “dummy.” There’s no large issue being engaged and nothing clever in their exchange, making it worse than parody. And they don’t seem to know when to stop.

All of which means everyone who uses Twitter on a regular basis should use this as a case study in what can happen to public discourse in the new media age. It’s a zeitgeist-capturing moment, and a cautionary tale of how foolish people can appear in 140 characters or less.

 

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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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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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