Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 3, 2013

Robert Redford’s War on History

In 2013, the term “radical chic” is a cultural reference so dated that it is more or less the moral equivalent of someone mouthing the catch phrases of the Roaring Twenties in the 1960s. The era when liberal intellectuals and elite cultural figures paid homage to a violent and radical left is so far distant that it may be difficult for Americans growing up in the second decade of the 21st century to sense its significance. Suffice it to say that the willingness of so many people who ought to have known better to think of either Weather Underground terrorists or Black Panther thugs as idealists is among the most dishonorable moments in America’s cultural history.

The notion that America was on the verge of a revolution in the late ’60s and early ’70s was the sort of patently absurd idea that only intellectuals and those so choked with hatred for their country could buy. It led inevitably to violence and murder and, like the rest of the far left’s ideas that seemingly died with the Berlin Wall, lives on only in the imaginations of campus radicals and the fever swamps of the far left. Although that era has been hopelessly romanticized by a country that has amnesia about everything about the time except its music, fortunately most Americans today see left-wing terrorism as ancient and deservedly forgotten history.

But not Hollywood, or at least the portion of it in which Robert Redford and his colleagues on the new film The Company You Keep which takes up the theme of a ’60s radical still on the lam 30 years after his crimes. The willingness of Redford to promote the fraudulent premise that these radicals were true patriots rather than murderous thugs cannot be excused by artistic license. Nor should it go unanswered. To claim, as he did on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, that the tale of the Weathermen trying to evade justice is a new version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, isn’t merely a movie absurdity. It is the worst sort of historical revisionism that ought to bring down on the former heartthrob’s head the sort of opprobrium that was once reserved for Jane Fonda.

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In 2013, the term “radical chic” is a cultural reference so dated that it is more or less the moral equivalent of someone mouthing the catch phrases of the Roaring Twenties in the 1960s. The era when liberal intellectuals and elite cultural figures paid homage to a violent and radical left is so far distant that it may be difficult for Americans growing up in the second decade of the 21st century to sense its significance. Suffice it to say that the willingness of so many people who ought to have known better to think of either Weather Underground terrorists or Black Panther thugs as idealists is among the most dishonorable moments in America’s cultural history.

The notion that America was on the verge of a revolution in the late ’60s and early ’70s was the sort of patently absurd idea that only intellectuals and those so choked with hatred for their country could buy. It led inevitably to violence and murder and, like the rest of the far left’s ideas that seemingly died with the Berlin Wall, lives on only in the imaginations of campus radicals and the fever swamps of the far left. Although that era has been hopelessly romanticized by a country that has amnesia about everything about the time except its music, fortunately most Americans today see left-wing terrorism as ancient and deservedly forgotten history.

But not Hollywood, or at least the portion of it in which Robert Redford and his colleagues on the new film The Company You Keep which takes up the theme of a ’60s radical still on the lam 30 years after his crimes. The willingness of Redford to promote the fraudulent premise that these radicals were true patriots rather than murderous thugs cannot be excused by artistic license. Nor should it go unanswered. To claim, as he did on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, that the tale of the Weathermen trying to evade justice is a new version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, isn’t merely a movie absurdity. It is the worst sort of historical revisionism that ought to bring down on the former heartthrob’s head the sort of opprobrium that was once reserved for Jane Fonda.

The film is loosely based on the events of the real life 1981 Brinks robbery in Nyack, N.Y. in which a gang of radicals who had been previously involved in Weathermen bombings murdered two police officers and a security guard while stealing $1.6 million to fund their activities. Michelle Malkin’s takedown of the film is a must read, as is our John Podhoretz’s column in today’s New York Post about Kathy Boudin, the getaway driver in the Brinks case.Boudin was eventually caught and served 22 years in jail before being sprung after some artful lies about her violent career to a credulous parole board. But after her release, she has become, like Bill Ayers, another former Weathermen who was friendly with Barack Obama before he became a presidential candidate, a petted idol of the academic world. As John writes, Columbia University’s decision to name the unrepentant killer an adjunct professor of social work is nothing less than a disgrace.

There will be those on the left who will chide conservatives for their anger over Redford’s film. Like those who mock the persistence of historians who have ferreted out the truth about Soviet spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss, they will ask us why we are so concerned about debunking these former left-wing icons. But those who ask right-wingers why they are so exercised about the past need to pose the same question to Redford and other liberals who think cinematic and literary attempts to vindicate these radicals are worthwhile endeavors.

 If Redford believes the impulse to bomb buildings and commit murders in the name of changing “Amerika” is really the moral equivalent of Jean Valjean’s crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child then his moral compass is profoundly out of order.

But the offense here is not just to Hugo, or as Malkin rightly noted, to the families of those murdered by Boudin and the real Brinks killers. Any effort to turn the history of that tortured era upside down and make violent ideologues the good guys diminishes all Americans as well as the rule of law. This won’t be the first Hollywood film to falsify history or to give villains the undeserved status of heroes. But in an era when our collective historical knowledge has become so flimsy it is all the more dangerous. The Weathermen radicals deserve to go down in history as the bloody-minded and evil killers that they truly were. The lies that Redford and his cheering section in the chattering classes and the arts tell must not be allowed to change that.

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Natural Gas and Israel’s Future

For decades, one of the standard jokes of the Jewish world was how it was that Moses had led the Children of Israel to what seemed to be one of the few spots in the Middle East without oil. Indeed, part of the narrative of modern Israel’s first 65 years has been its struggle to maintain its existence in the face of a siege financed by an Arab world awash in oil revenue. Its survival was a testimony to the fact that oil money is no match for Jewish brains and courage. But the story of the next 65 years of Israeli history is not likely to be the same kind of David and Goliath tale. As the opening of the Tamar natural gas reservoir in the Mediterranean off of Haifa indicates, the era of Israelis being victimized by an energy industry controlled solely by their enemies is over.

The flow of gas from the Tamar field didn’t get the attention devoted to Palestinian terrorism and slanted stories about Israeli measures of self-defense, but it may well turn out to be a turning point in the country’s history. The high-tech revolution that has galvanized the country’s economy had already made it the quintessential Start-Up Nation, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book termed it. The drive toward energy independence and eventually toward the status of energy exporter will only accentuate Israel’s economic strength that will make the country not only richer but also more secure.

The flow of gas and the possibility of the country also being able to develop shale oil deposits are to be celebrated as signs that Israel is, as President Obama put it last month, “not going anywhere.” But no one should be under the impression that a strong economy or even a gas export business will end the conflict with the Muslim and Arab worlds. As much as Israel’s isolation has been exacerbated by the power of Arab oil, economics does not explain the level of animus directed at it in Europe or elsewhere. A hundred Tamar fields cannot make anti-Semitism disappear.

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For decades, one of the standard jokes of the Jewish world was how it was that Moses had led the Children of Israel to what seemed to be one of the few spots in the Middle East without oil. Indeed, part of the narrative of modern Israel’s first 65 years has been its struggle to maintain its existence in the face of a siege financed by an Arab world awash in oil revenue. Its survival was a testimony to the fact that oil money is no match for Jewish brains and courage. But the story of the next 65 years of Israeli history is not likely to be the same kind of David and Goliath tale. As the opening of the Tamar natural gas reservoir in the Mediterranean off of Haifa indicates, the era of Israelis being victimized by an energy industry controlled solely by their enemies is over.

The flow of gas from the Tamar field didn’t get the attention devoted to Palestinian terrorism and slanted stories about Israeli measures of self-defense, but it may well turn out to be a turning point in the country’s history. The high-tech revolution that has galvanized the country’s economy had already made it the quintessential Start-Up Nation, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book termed it. The drive toward energy independence and eventually toward the status of energy exporter will only accentuate Israel’s economic strength that will make the country not only richer but also more secure.

The flow of gas and the possibility of the country also being able to develop shale oil deposits are to be celebrated as signs that Israel is, as President Obama put it last month, “not going anywhere.” But no one should be under the impression that a strong economy or even a gas export business will end the conflict with the Muslim and Arab worlds. As much as Israel’s isolation has been exacerbated by the power of Arab oil, economics does not explain the level of animus directed at it in Europe or elsewhere. A hundred Tamar fields cannot make anti-Semitism disappear.

The opening up of the Tamar field alone will supply 50 to 80 percent of Israel’s natural gas fields in the next decade. But another field, called Leviathan off the country’s northern coast, is far larger. When it is exploited, it will not just lessen Israel’s dependence on energy imports but will turn the country into an exporter. That will dramatically increase its leverage in dealing with a Europe that is in thrall to Russian, Arab and Iranian oil and gas exporters. An economically strong Israel is one that is not so easily isolated. The rise in the value of the shekel in relation to the dollar this week is not due entirely to Tamar and must be credited to low interest rates and the wise fiscal policies of the Netanyahu government. But it is yet another sign that the country that was once a basket case dependent on foreign aid from America and world Jewry in order keep its finances afloat irrespective of defense needs is on its way to becoming a major economic power.

But not even energy exports in a world desperate for more fossil fuel power will be enough to silence the slurs against Israel being an apartheid power or an oppressor.

Since even before Israel’s birth there have always been those Zionists who believed economics explained everything about the Middle East conflict. Prior to World War II, the predominant Labor Zionist movement believed the economic interests of an exploitive Arab ruling class was the only thing fueling attacks on the Jewish presence in Palestine. They thought that once the effendis were rendered obsolete by economic progress and/or socialism, the conflict would simply go away.

They were wrong. Economics may explain a lot, but resentment of the Jewish return to the land is explained by religion and nationalist ideology, not the dialectic taught by the students of Karl Marx. Even in the “flat earth” world of Thomas Friedman’s imagination in which economic development will transform the region, hatred for Jews and Israel still are the animating forces behind the effort to end Israel’s existence. Radical Islam and Palestinian Arab nationalism still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or how many concessions it makes. And that is a force that is strong enough to resist the rational impulse to end the conflict no matter how rich Israel or the Arab world get.

Nor will it change the attitudes of European elites and intellectuals who wrongly see Zionism as a vestigial remnant of the age of imperialism, something they view as the post-modern equivalent of Christianity’s doctrine of original sin.

The sorry truth is that the main factors driving attacks on Israel are a function of anti-Semitism, not economics. As Ruth Wisse rightly pointed out, Jew hatred was the most successful ideology of the 20th century as it was the tool of fascists, Nazis and Communists. That won’t change in the 21st century as Islamists continue their war on the West and the little Satan of Israel with anti-Semitism remaining as a major theme of their worldview.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of Tamar. Nor does it mean that Israel’s economic development is not one more reason to believe attempts to isolate it or even destroy it will all fail. But it does bring into focus the fact that if it is to resist those efforts it must not assume that its economic brilliance will make it any more popular than its scientific advances or the beauty of its beaches or its people.

Those who hold onto the myth that branding Israel will make it loved are still wrong. Rich or poor, what Israel needs to do is to assert the justice of its cause and to continue to push back against the idea that it hasn’t the right to defend itself against those who would end its existence. Only on the day when its neighbors as well as the rest of the international community accept, as President Obama did last month, that the Jews have returned to their ancient homeland never to leave it again, will we be able to say the conflict is truly over. 

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Axelrod’s Disciples

Humorlessness and self-seriousness can be a difficult combination of traits for a national politician to overcome. But Barack Obama managed to do so in part because when he stayed on script he was eloquent and measured. Those who work for him, however, seem to possess all of his thin-skinned defensiveness with none of the charm.

So it was no surprise that eventually those employees would become ex-employees and saturate the Twittersphere with what Dylan Byers today calls “their frat-house banter” of social media aggression. Byers writes that the angry, score-settling aides shine a light on the mindset of those still toiling away in the West Wing:

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Humorlessness and self-seriousness can be a difficult combination of traits for a national politician to overcome. But Barack Obama managed to do so in part because when he stayed on script he was eloquent and measured. Those who work for him, however, seem to possess all of his thin-skinned defensiveness with none of the charm.

So it was no surprise that eventually those employees would become ex-employees and saturate the Twittersphere with what Dylan Byers today calls “their frat-house banter” of social media aggression. Byers writes that the angry, score-settling aides shine a light on the mindset of those still toiling away in the West Wing:

“Twitter offers a window into the internal frustrations of an administration and the arguments people make on the inside. So it’s not surprising that people coming out of this White House are skeptical of Washington, Congress and the media,” Lovett, a former White House speechwriter, told POLITICO. “If there was Twitter when John Adams was president, ex-John Adams staffers would probably have let loose on Thomas Jefferson.”

But of course, there wasn’t Twitter when John Adams was president, nor was Twitter an influential medium during the tenure of President George W. Bush. President Obama’s aides are the first to leave a White House in the age of social media. Where former administration staffers took their newfound freedom to cable news or the pages of an inside-the-White-House tell-all, Obama staffers are voicing their grievances — and building their post-White House brands — through social media.

It’s interesting that Lovett admits that the media would be a natural target. The political press, after all, consider themselves a kind of informational Secret Service for this president. But I suppose if most of the coverage you get is positive, that one Woodward op-ed and the occasional Washington Post editorial that goes the other way stand out that much more. Obama is also famously obsessed with his own press clips.

Social media is relatively young and a minefield, and you tend to want to have a bit of compassion for the occasional slip-up. But much of this group’s activity is by design, not mistake. And it predates their free agency. As I wrote back in January of 2012, even the New York Times was put-off by David Axelrod’s Twitter obsession with his counterparts on the Romney campaign. The attention was unrequited, so Axelrod beefed up his taunting until the Times had to step in. “Mr. Axelrod clearly does a lot of personal thinking about Mr. Romney,” the Times wrote, highlighting several examples of when Axelrod surely should have known better than to be on his phone taunting Republicans. Sample tweet: “At Bulls game with my daughter, Lauren, thinking about how turnovers late in game can kill you. Must be thinking same over at Romney HQ!”

It’s doubtful they were thinking the same thing over at Romney headquarters, and it’s doubly doubtful they were thinking at all about Axelrod while with their children at a basketball game. But silly season gets its name for a reason. There were also times Axelrod drifted into offensive waters, for example sending anti-Mormon tweets while working for a campaign that branded Romney in its ads “not one of us.”

Axelrod led by example and set a certain tone for the entire Obama campaign apparatus. Thus when the younger staffers who followed Axelrod into Twitter battle left the White House, they went looking for a fight anywhere they could get it, as they tell Byers:

“For the first couple weeks there was a feeling of being unleashed,” Favreau told POLITICO. “Tommy and I were at an airport waiting for a flight, and we were both in a Twitter fight with someone. After about an hour, we looked up from ours phones and said, ‘We have to stop.’”

Fights and potshots take up a fair amount of former staffers’ time on Twitter, and though the group has shared targets — Republican intransigence, the media’s obsession with minutiae, conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin — each individual has his favorite areas of combat.

It’s not just opinion writers or reporters; current White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer used his interview with Politico today to complain about the online news aggregator Drudge: “It hurts what we’re trying to do,” Pfeiffer said–which is: control the news cycle.

And that really gets to what is driving the relentless combat. When the Obama campaign put out ads accusing Romney of giving people cancer or of not being “one of us” or of wanting to kill Big Bird, there were two main concerns: first, whether someone else on the campaign was prepared to grab the wheel and steer it out of the gutter (there wasn’t), and second, that the Obama campaign might win the election and believe that their strategy was vindicated. Clearly, both concerns were right on the mark.

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Is Norway a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

While I ask that with tongue in cheek, the question really is not so far-fetched, according to the latest report from the inestimable Palestinian Media Watch:

Recently, Palestinian Media Watch reported that Norway’s Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, admitted that the Foreign Ministry had given Parliament “imprecise” information ”obtained from the PA” and from PM Salam Fayyad, denying the PA’s use of donor money to pay salaries to security prisoners imprisoned in Israel, among them terrorists.

PMW exposed these salary payments for the first time in 2011, but Norway’s Foreign Minister had told Parliament that these payments were social welfare to the families, based on the false information supplied by the PA… MP Anders Anundsen, the Head of the Parliamentary Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs, stated to NRK TV that he was not satisfied with the Foreign Minister’s answer, specifically questioning when the Foreign Minister became aware that it had passed on false information from the PA to Parliament.

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While I ask that with tongue in cheek, the question really is not so far-fetched, according to the latest report from the inestimable Palestinian Media Watch:

Recently, Palestinian Media Watch reported that Norway’s Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, admitted that the Foreign Ministry had given Parliament “imprecise” information ”obtained from the PA” and from PM Salam Fayyad, denying the PA’s use of donor money to pay salaries to security prisoners imprisoned in Israel, among them terrorists.

PMW exposed these salary payments for the first time in 2011, but Norway’s Foreign Minister had told Parliament that these payments were social welfare to the families, based on the false information supplied by the PA… MP Anders Anundsen, the Head of the Parliamentary Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs, stated to NRK TV that he was not satisfied with the Foreign Minister’s answer, specifically questioning when the Foreign Minister became aware that it had passed on false information from the PA to Parliament.

Norway is emblematic of a larger problem. Throwing money at the Palestinians is not synonymous with either progress or justice. Quite the contrary, any money donated to the Palestinian Authority under such circumstances is counterproductive. While there is a cult of admiration surrounding Fayyad in Western diplomatic circles because of his emphasis on economic development in the West Bank, that money is fungible means that any aid and assistance given to the Palestinian Authority is counterproductive until it renounces terrorism completely, not only in rhetoric but also in deed. While I personally support a two-state solution, with an independent Palestinian state in much of the West Bank and Gaza living in peace alongside Israel as a Jewish state, such an outcome is simply an idealistic dream until there is a fundamental change in Palestinian culture.

Here, the United States and more broadly the West has leverage. Terrorism should be a black-and-white issue. There should be no money donated to the Palestinian Authority—or any other country embracing terrorists—until they shun rather than lionize terrorists. Despite what Turkey, Norway, Egypt, or Qatar may think, sympathy to the cause does not make terrorism legitimate. Certainly, U.S. taxpayer money should never be an entitlement to a terror-embracing regime.

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No More Incentives for Iran

Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.

Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.

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Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.

Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.

Indeed, the obsessive American approach to trying to bribe Iran only humiliates the United States in the eyes of Iranian officials. The simple facts of the matter are these:

  • The Iranian nuclear program is in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement and with multiple International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) findings and with several United Nations Security Council resolutions. There really should be no ifs, ands, or buts when it comes to American flexibility.
  • Many diplomats believe that a give-and-take should form the basis of diplomatic negotiations. It should be increasingly difficult for these diplomats to defend the process, for while the European Union and United States have offered to give and give and give some more, the Iranians have not reciprocated. Why is it that the Iranian government does not itself offer some incentives?

The simple facts are these:

  • The Iranian government has repeatedly approached talks insincerely, and has no intention of forfeiting its illicit nuclear weapons program.
  • After two decades of diplomacy, Iranian authorities know what they need to do. Countless meetings do not elucidate it for them. It is time Western diplomats underline a choice: Tehran can abandon its nuclear program, or they can face the consequences. Rather than let the Islamic Republic profit off its defiance, the most productive thing congressmen and diplomats should do is outline just exactly what those consequences will be.

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Turk Donates Israeli Compensation to Terrorists

Lest anyone need a reminder of just who was on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship which Israel lawfully stopped in international waters as it tried to run Israel’s blockade, the Turkish press is running a story today about how one of the families to whom the Israeli government is paying compensation are donating the Israeli money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That money will most likely be used not to build industry or establish scholarships, but rather to subsidize further terrorism. Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad try to hide the fact that their goals are maximalist and genocidal. That these are the people that the Turkish government supports says a lot about the reality of Turkey.

Perhaps Israelis believe that the apology ends the dispute. Not so fast. It looks like the Turks are currently engaged in a bait-and-switch. As the Hürriyet Daily News reports:

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Lest anyone need a reminder of just who was on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship which Israel lawfully stopped in international waters as it tried to run Israel’s blockade, the Turkish press is running a story today about how one of the families to whom the Israeli government is paying compensation are donating the Israeli money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That money will most likely be used not to build industry or establish scholarships, but rather to subsidize further terrorism. Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad try to hide the fact that their goals are maximalist and genocidal. That these are the people that the Turkish government supports says a lot about the reality of Turkey.

Perhaps Israelis believe that the apology ends the dispute. Not so fast. It looks like the Turks are currently engaged in a bait-and-switch. As the Hürriyet Daily News reports:

The families have not yet made their final decision as to whether accept the compensation that will eventually be offered by Israel and withdraw from cases against Israeli soldiers, according to sources.  [Deputy Prime Minister Bülent] Arınç said yesterday that the families had said that “any words about compensation would sadden them. The core of the issue is the apology and lifting of the embargo [on the Gaza Strip]. The government’s work on compensation would be right for them as well.”

In other words, the Turkish government will pocket the apology, but might still allow the lawsuits which the Israeli government fears to proceed.

Benjamin Netanyahu once positioned himself as serious about counterterrorism. His 2001 book, Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists, urged a tough line. Who would have thought, just 12 years later, his government would effectively be subsidizing them.

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Sanford’s a Different Kind of Bad Candidate

One of the great clichés of literature is Leo Tolstoy’s assertion in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. The same thing could be said of political candidates. All good candidates, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, have many of the same personal qualities that make for effective retail politics in terms of personal appeal and even intelligence (though that appears at times to be optional rather than a requirement). But bad candidates come in all shapes and sizes.

That is a lesson that the Republican Party has learned to its regret in the last couple of election cycles and may well again in South Carolina this spring. While the months since the Democrats’ victory last November have been filled with non-stop recriminations from Republicans about the quality of their candidates as well as advice from liberals to junk conservative ideology, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP’s main albatross is one that conservatives have stiffly and rightly resisted. That point has been reinforced by what happened last night in the Palmetto State. The decision of Republican primary voters to nominate former governor Mark Sanford to run in the special election to fill the vacancy in his old congressional district has sent a shiver down the spines of GOP operatives as they rightly fear he will lose a seat that their party shouldn’t even have to worry about.

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One of the great clichés of literature is Leo Tolstoy’s assertion in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. The same thing could be said of political candidates. All good candidates, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, have many of the same personal qualities that make for effective retail politics in terms of personal appeal and even intelligence (though that appears at times to be optional rather than a requirement). But bad candidates come in all shapes and sizes.

That is a lesson that the Republican Party has learned to its regret in the last couple of election cycles and may well again in South Carolina this spring. While the months since the Democrats’ victory last November have been filled with non-stop recriminations from Republicans about the quality of their candidates as well as advice from liberals to junk conservative ideology, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP’s main albatross is one that conservatives have stiffly and rightly resisted. That point has been reinforced by what happened last night in the Palmetto State. The decision of Republican primary voters to nominate former governor Mark Sanford to run in the special election to fill the vacancy in his old congressional district has sent a shiver down the spines of GOP operatives as they rightly fear he will lose a seat that their party shouldn’t even have to worry about.

Sanford is running on a platform of personal redemption, in which his infamous mythical hike on the Appalachian Trail while actually visiting his mistress in Argentina has actually become a rationale for forgiving souls to return him to Congress rather than a reason to vote against him. Given the overwhelming advantage that Republicans hold in the district as well as the forgiving nature of the American people, it may work. One could certainly argue that Democrats who still venerate Bill Clinton as a great president are in no position to cast stones at Sanford and that his opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch will not be aided by a moralistic and hypocritical critique of him.

But it is just as likely that enough Republicans will be disgusted by the spectacle of Sanford’s return to electoral politics after personal disgrace that it will enable Busch to win a district that Mitt Romney carried by 18 percentage points over Barack Obama. If so, this will be one Republican defeat that wiseacres won’t be able to blame on the Tea Party, failed outreach to Hispanics or any of the other valid concerns that helped cost it control of the Senate and the White House.

The lesson here is that as unique as this story may be, it’s important to realize that the outcome of every political race in the country is the product of a host of factors that often have nothing to do with national trends or issues. It is only after the fact that pundits are able to impose a unifying narrative on such contests that allow them to fit it into an overriding concept that they claim explains everything.

While such narratives are not always misleading—there really were enough Tea Party outliers like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle to constitute a trend that explained why the GOP has lost winnable seats—they often encompass races that really have more to do with personal or local factors than subjects that provide the grist for condescending New York Times editorials about the problems of Republicans.

If Republicans are to do better in 2014 it will require a convergence of a number of factors that include some of the recommendations provided by our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson in their article in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But the main thing they’ll need is a collection of viable candidates. The puzzling embrace of the morally burdened Sanford by some of his former constituents could provide an object lesson in just how difficult it is for a national party to field a winning slate across the nation.

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Arms Trade Treaty: Toothless and Harmless

Remember the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact–a crowning achievement of the Coolidge administration–which purported to ban the use of war to settle international disputes? Clearly the United Nations doesn’t, because its General Assembly has just approved a treaty just as well-intentioned–and as toothless.

The Arms Trade Treaty is designed to stop the sale of conventional arms to human-rights abusers. It would certainly be nice if, say, Iran and Russia were prohibited from shipping arms to Bashar Assad–to take just one example of many from the immoral, or more accurately, amoral international arms market. But it is hard to see what the Arms Trade Treaty will do to accomplish this end, since, as the New York Times notes, “implementation is years away and there is no specific enforcement mechanism.”

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Remember the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact–a crowning achievement of the Coolidge administration–which purported to ban the use of war to settle international disputes? Clearly the United Nations doesn’t, because its General Assembly has just approved a treaty just as well-intentioned–and as toothless.

The Arms Trade Treaty is designed to stop the sale of conventional arms to human-rights abusers. It would certainly be nice if, say, Iran and Russia were prohibited from shipping arms to Bashar Assad–to take just one example of many from the immoral, or more accurately, amoral international arms market. But it is hard to see what the Arms Trade Treaty will do to accomplish this end, since, as the New York Times notes, “implementation is years away and there is no specific enforcement mechanism.”

Advocates of the treaty hope that the force of moral suasion will dissuade states from shipping arms to unsavory customers. I hope they’re right, but count me as skeptical: Dictatorial regimes in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and elsewhere are not likely to be affected by angry editorials. And even more liberal states such as France are likely to sell arms to dubious customers simply to make money and enhance their influence. No wonder even such notorious arms sellers as Russia and China did not come out against the treaty; they voted to abstain instead, although Syria, North Korea and Iran did vote against it.

Given just how toothless the Arms Trade Treaty is, it is puzzling to see so much opposition to ratification in the U.S. Senate. Fifty senators have already come out against the treaty based on somewhat far-fetched arguments from the National Rifle Association that this will somehow imperil the gun ownership rights of ordinary Americans. I can understand opposing the treaty on the grounds of ineffectuality–but it hardly poses a threat to any state, much less the United States.

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Will Obama and Hagel Learn from the Korean Crisis?

From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

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From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

As North Korea continues its saber-rattling, it behooves American officials to consider the implications of maintaining such an ineffective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. While conducting interviews for my forthcoming book about the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I had interviewed a former Clinton administration official who acknowledged that Clinton’s team understood the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement but signed the agreement anyway in order to show progress and because they did not believe the regime would last long enough for the promised reactors to have to be delivered. The Clinton team was wrong, obviously, and nearly 20 years of bipartisan diplomatic failure later, North Korea may finally have a leader who could be crazy enough to unleash the worst violence not only on South Korea, but also on Japan, if not the United States.

With the North Korea crisis escalating, perhaps it is time for the Obama administration to ask if they really can afford to play footsie with the Islamic Republic and pursue a diplomatic strategy that has not only failed to deliver, but also has no promise for future delivery. Perhaps Obama and Hagel believe they can contain Iran today, but they should recognize the North Korea crisis today for what it is: a crystal ball into Iran’s future.

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Baseball Springs Eternal

This week marks the opening of another baseball season, the long wait ’til this year finally over for the 29 teams that didn’t win the World Series last year.

Baseball is the only sport that produces great writing every year, as new books come out and new essays are written to mark the beginning of the season. They always tell a story extending beyond the game itself.

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This week marks the opening of another baseball season, the long wait ’til this year finally over for the 29 teams that didn’t win the World Series last year.

Baseball is the only sport that produces great writing every year, as new books come out and new essays are written to mark the beginning of the season. They always tell a story extending beyond the game itself.

There is nothing in any other sport quite like a Vin Scully conversation, or a Roger Angell essay, or a George Will book. Bill Kristol linked some Opening Day reading, including Clark Griffith’s beautifully-written piece on the timeless appeal of baseball, a game Griffith says “tells a story that relates to the human condition.” Here is his description of a home run:

Baseball’s most prestigious feat is the home run … The home run derives its prestige from the act of driving the hostile pitch out of the field of play in a showing of complete victory. It is the ultimate show of dominance, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot. A home run allows the batter to trot regally, with impunity, in an ostentatiously slow, plodding, sometimes taunting pace, while the fielders must stand and watch, incapable of action, mute.     

Perhaps the most remarkable description of a home run in Jewish literature comes in Ehud Havazelet’s extraordinary short story collection, Like Never Before, in a story entitled “Six Days.” Birnbaum, a Holocaust survivor lost in America in the Sixties, takes his young son David to Yankee Stadium during Passover, in a scene that captured a Jewish generational divide:

[Birnbaum] was not much interested in the game, barely understood its rules, and it was with some effort that he responded to the boy’s enthusiasm when a favorite – Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson – came up to hit, or when something exciting had just occurred and he had missed it, his nose buried in a book, but about which he needed, for the boy’s sake, to be surprised, willing on a moment’s read of his son’s face to be crestfallen or delighted…

The boy kept score, as he called it, leaned over to tell him Maris was due … Birnbaum would nod, smile, look out at the costumed men on the field and see nothing. He would make an effort, remark of a towering fly ball caught near the outfield fence that that was some hit … But his son would look baffled at him, might say, It was an out, Abba, and Birnbaum would nod, edified, and return to his book …

They sat far back in the reserved section, eating egg salad and tuna on matzoh … Suddenly there was commotion all around them. Birnbaum was alarmed, looked to see everyone standing, moving at once … They were in a mob. Birnbaum’s heart pushed into his throat as he reached for his boy to take him and run. Then, above their heads, a white streak, the ball, a few rows behind them with a man with a hair-covered stomach bulging from an unbuttoned shirt catching it easily with an outstretched hand …

“Are you all right?” Birnbaum wanted to ask his son, but the boy was already turned to him, all smiles, an American boy pounding his mitt. “Jeez, did you see that?” he said. “I almost had it. A home run by Norm Cash!”

Mantle wins it with a home run in the ninth, but throughout the game “Birnbaum could not relax, kept looking from his book to David to the people around them, thinking it would be dark when they left the stadium, then two hours on the subway, and the long walk home.”

Griffith writes that baseball’s appeal “is the story of players alone in the wilderness, relying on friends for help, and being alert to dangers, while focusing on the single goal of reaching home safely … The story played out is like life itself.” In a review of this year’s new baseball books, L.A. Times book critic David Ulin argues that “we live through the long season, the long careers of our heroes; in their victories, but more often in their travails, we see some reflection of ourselves.”

So play ball; never give up; run out every ground ball; and be a mensch

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The American Media, Language, and Selective Humanity

On September 11 of last year, as the attacks on the American missions in Benghazi and Cairo developed, the New York Times led with a description of the fate of the American flag at the embassy in Cairo: violent Islamists took down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag “similar to Al Qaeda’s banner.” About three months later, the Times ran another story about the fate of an American flag, this one in Illinois: a voter upset about President Obama’s re-election flew his American flag upside down.

Aside from having the American flag at the center of the stories, the two pieces had another element in common: in both, the offenders–a disgruntled Republican voter and violent Salafist Islamists–shared a descriptor. The New York Times regarded both as “ultraconservative.” The Times makes no attempt to justify this latest attack on the English language: it never explains what makes someone “ultraconservative.” The paper is simply content with vague designations that hint at opprobrium and ensure the near-impossibility of learning anything from its stories. Two stories in the news this week brought this to mind.

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On September 11 of last year, as the attacks on the American missions in Benghazi and Cairo developed, the New York Times led with a description of the fate of the American flag at the embassy in Cairo: violent Islamists took down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag “similar to Al Qaeda’s banner.” About three months later, the Times ran another story about the fate of an American flag, this one in Illinois: a voter upset about President Obama’s re-election flew his American flag upside down.

Aside from having the American flag at the center of the stories, the two pieces had another element in common: in both, the offenders–a disgruntled Republican voter and violent Salafist Islamists–shared a descriptor. The New York Times regarded both as “ultraconservative.” The Times makes no attempt to justify this latest attack on the English language: it never explains what makes someone “ultraconservative.” The paper is simply content with vague designations that hint at opprobrium and ensure the near-impossibility of learning anything from its stories. Two stories in the news this week brought this to mind.

One was the Associated Press’s announcement that it would forbid the use of the term “illegal immigrants” to describe illegal immigrants. In fairness to the AP, it has also resisted the phenomenally stupid term “undocumented,” noting in its own explanation that such a person “may have plenty of documents,” and therefore the term means nothing in the context of an immigration story. But AP editors also explained that many people told them they don’t like the term illegal immigrants, so the AP is getting rid of the term. Though I think comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship has long been a wise goal to pursue, perhaps passing immigration reform becomes even more urgent now before the media deletes the entire relevant vocabulary and any pertinent legislation must be written in pictograph.

The other story was, unsurprisingly, from the New York Times, which offered a correction for the ages when it apologetically noted that this story “mischaracterized the Christian holiday of Easter. It is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, not his resurrection into heaven.” Michael Walsh at NRO had some fun with the Times, wondering how, among the paper’s reporters and legion of editors, no one caught the fact that a dispatch datelined Vatican City incorrectly described Easter on Easter Sunday. He also asked how the phrase “resurrection into heaven” made it into the correction.

The manipulation of language in the American leftist press is about more than simple political correctness, of course. And in this light the AP’s change on “illegal immigrants” is pretty harmless. The language will adapt, whether or not it should have been forced to do so. But the scourge of moral relativism is a much larger aspect of the media’s assault on language. The Times’s description of everyone of every nationality and every religion who is not an East Coast secularist as “ultraconservative” is an example, but the more famous example is the media’s persistent refusal to use the word terrorist to describe terrorists. “Militant” has emerged as the go-to replacement, but a fairly pathetic one. And now “ultraconservative” may at times stand in for it, which is the same term the Times uses to identify those who voted against Obama. But since moral relativism is a feature and not a bug of Western liberalism, it’ll have to do.

There are other corrosive effects of the media’s language manipulation. Mark Steyn pointed out a perfect example a couple of weeks ago, involving both the AP and the Times. A Times story described babies born alive–which advanced civilization prefers to call “people”–as “viable fetuses” still eligible for abortion. But isn’t abortion something else? Yes, and Steyn found a helpful Associated Press story to explain that “Abortions are typically performed in utero.”

One would hope. Regardless of a person’s position on the availability of abortion, the press’s insistence on twisting itself in knots to avoid humanizing a human is not a sign of cultural health. Coincidentally, that is just the complaint that led to the eventual dismissal of the term “illegal immigrant.” In the ABC News report on the AP’s decision, we are told that “Fusion, the ABC-Univision joint venture, does not use ‘illegal immigrant’ because we believe it dehumanizes those it describes.” Fair enough, I suppose, but is it too much to ask for this concern over humanity to be applied across the board?

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European Manufacturing

When I wrote yesterday about the growing unemployment in Europe, I noted that manufacturing in Europe was in real trouble, having been losing jobs every month for quite a while now.

Today Walter Russell Mead explains one big reason why: natural gas. Natural gas now costs about one-fourth as much in the United States as it does in Europe. The reason for that is, of course, fracking, which has been largely welcomed in the United States, except on federal land and such places as New York State. There Governor Andrew Cuomo would rather pander to the “environmentalists” who show up at expensive Democratic fundraisers in chic New York City venues than help out the deeply depressed upstate economy, which is sitting on trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

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When I wrote yesterday about the growing unemployment in Europe, I noted that manufacturing in Europe was in real trouble, having been losing jobs every month for quite a while now.

Today Walter Russell Mead explains one big reason why: natural gas. Natural gas now costs about one-fourth as much in the United States as it does in Europe. The reason for that is, of course, fracking, which has been largely welcomed in the United States, except on federal land and such places as New York State. There Governor Andrew Cuomo would rather pander to the “environmentalists” who show up at expensive Democratic fundraisers in chic New York City venues than help out the deeply depressed upstate economy, which is sitting on trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

In Europe, however, despite much potential for fracking natural gas, the greens have largely prevented its exploitation. That has had and will have a serious impact on European manufacturing. Mead quotes the Washington Post which graphs the price differential:

Top BASF [a giant German chemical firm] officials say that unless Europe allows a more aggressive approach to energy production, including broader use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, even more manufacturing will move to the United States.

As Mead says, “this is yet another reason to be optimistic about America’s future.”

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Rockets, Hate and Kerry’s Fool’s Errand

Two weeks have passed since President Obama spoke to an audience of Israeli students and urged them to pressure their government to make peace with the Palestinians. To further that aim, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected back in the country this week to push for a renewal of peace talks. Kerry will busy himself with shuttling between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. But while Kerry talks, the deteriorating cease-fire between Israel and Hamas along the Gaza border is illustrating the futile nature of his mission.

Palestinians fired rockets again into southern Israel from Gaza this week, showing that the cease-fire Hamas agreed to after Israel’s November counter-offensive to stop such outrages may be collapsing. This shows that despite Washington’s focus on propping up Abbas as a credible partner for peace, the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza still has the ability to veto any hopes for an end to the conflict. But it also puts the entire enterprise of peacemaking in a different perspective. As much as the president seemed to place the onus for negotiating a deal on Israel, the armed terrorist camp in Gaza serves to not only maintain the level of violence on a low if persistent flame, but also keeps the pressure on Abbas to find more excuses to not talk to an Israeli government that has already said it will negotiate without preconditions. The reality of Palestinian politics has an unfortunate way of outstripping American diplomatic initiatives, something Obama should have taken into consideration before sending Kerry out on this latest fool’s errand.

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Two weeks have passed since President Obama spoke to an audience of Israeli students and urged them to pressure their government to make peace with the Palestinians. To further that aim, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected back in the country this week to push for a renewal of peace talks. Kerry will busy himself with shuttling between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. But while Kerry talks, the deteriorating cease-fire between Israel and Hamas along the Gaza border is illustrating the futile nature of his mission.

Palestinians fired rockets again into southern Israel from Gaza this week, showing that the cease-fire Hamas agreed to after Israel’s November counter-offensive to stop such outrages may be collapsing. This shows that despite Washington’s focus on propping up Abbas as a credible partner for peace, the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza still has the ability to veto any hopes for an end to the conflict. But it also puts the entire enterprise of peacemaking in a different perspective. As much as the president seemed to place the onus for negotiating a deal on Israel, the armed terrorist camp in Gaza serves to not only maintain the level of violence on a low if persistent flame, but also keeps the pressure on Abbas to find more excuses to not talk to an Israeli government that has already said it will negotiate without preconditions. The reality of Palestinian politics has an unfortunate way of outstripping American diplomatic initiatives, something Obama should have taken into consideration before sending Kerry out on this latest fool’s errand.

Abbas has already demonstrated repeatedly that he is in no position to seriously negotiate peace with Israel, let alone sign such an agreement. But that isn’t stopping Kerry from diving into a new round of shuttle diplomacy any more than the reality of Hamas’s hegemony in Gaza is causing him to ponder the fact that a divided Palestinian leadership makes a deal impossible.

According to numerous reports, the current sticking point for getting Abbas back to the negotiating table is his demand that Israel release long-term security prisoners as a “goodwill gesture,” an issue that’s been prioritized because of sympathy generated by the death of a 64-year-old Palestinian in Israeli custody. But this is just one more of a long list of excuses that Abbas has trumped up in order to avoid talks rather than a genuine obstacle to peace.

The issue of the prisoners is often represented in the international press as one of concern for the fate of Palestinian protesters who have been unjustly jailed by Israelis in order to suppress dissent. But the prisoner who just died is a perfect illustration of just how misleading that assumption can be. The late prisoner was incarcerated for his role in sending a suicide bomber to blow up an Israeli café, not for conducting a peaceful protest or even throwing a rock.

As Kerry ought to know, the real obstacle to peace isn’t Israeli settlements or building in Jerusalem. It is the hate for Jews and Israel that is fueling the rocket fire from Gaza. But instead of trying to mollify Abbas’s bogus concerns about prisoners, the secretary would probably do more to advance the cause of peace were he to address the ongoing fomenting of hatred by the official PA media.

As Palestinian Media Watch reports, this month a children’s program on official Palestinian Authority television showed a child reciting a poem that referred to both Zionists and the “sons of pigs”—a traditional Muslim reference for Jews. The poem, which was received with applause, spoke of Jews killing children, raping women in the streets and defiling the Koran and Jerusalem, while urging Muslims to rise up and defeat them. So long as such expressions are not only considered mainstream enough for general Palestinian discourse but are part of the PA’s education agenda, peace isn’t difficult; it’s impossible.

This shows once again that the gaps between the two sides in the Middle East conflict are not about borders but about a willingness to live in peace. PA propaganda isn’t just outrageous; it directly contradicts President Obama’s endorsement of the right of Jews to live in peace in their historic homeland. Until that changes, Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy will be just a waste of time.

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