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Posts For: April 14, 2013

The Newtown Families and Democracy

President Obama played his strongest card this weekend in the ongoing struggle over gun control legislation when he had one of the parents of the victims of the Newtown massacre deliver his weekly radio address. Francine Wheeler, the mother of one of the 1st-graders murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December delivered an impassioned plea for Americans to join in support of what she and the White House termed the president’s “common sense” proposals. The speech was both eloquent and deeply moving and, like the effects of some of the lobbying visits to members of the House and the Senate by the Newtown parents, obviously effective.

Suffice it to say that so long as the debate about guns is restricted to one between Ms. Wheeler and, say, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, gun rights advocates haven’t got much of a chance. There is no arguing with grief, especially when it is attached to rather amorphous rhetoric about the issue that simply implores Congress to “do something” about guns.

This is a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of those who are seeking to oppose the president or even the bipartisan compromise proposal put forward by pro-gun senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, but there is no use complaining about it. The Newtown parents have a right to speak out on this issue and you can’t blame the media for giving them outsized coverage. But those who believe they can count on this factor cowing the NRA or even more moderate opponents of infringements on the Second Amendment into submission should not overestimate the impact that the pure emotion generated by the relatives of the victims will have in the long run. Such passion is powerful but it is not a substitute for reason. Nor can it be sustained indefinitely. That is why people like Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is puffed in a column this weekend by the New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd saying his goal is to “disenfranchise the N.R.A.,” are not going to succeed.

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President Obama played his strongest card this weekend in the ongoing struggle over gun control legislation when he had one of the parents of the victims of the Newtown massacre deliver his weekly radio address. Francine Wheeler, the mother of one of the 1st-graders murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December delivered an impassioned plea for Americans to join in support of what she and the White House termed the president’s “common sense” proposals. The speech was both eloquent and deeply moving and, like the effects of some of the lobbying visits to members of the House and the Senate by the Newtown parents, obviously effective.

Suffice it to say that so long as the debate about guns is restricted to one between Ms. Wheeler and, say, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, gun rights advocates haven’t got much of a chance. There is no arguing with grief, especially when it is attached to rather amorphous rhetoric about the issue that simply implores Congress to “do something” about guns.

This is a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of those who are seeking to oppose the president or even the bipartisan compromise proposal put forward by pro-gun senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, but there is no use complaining about it. The Newtown parents have a right to speak out on this issue and you can’t blame the media for giving them outsized coverage. But those who believe they can count on this factor cowing the NRA or even more moderate opponents of infringements on the Second Amendment into submission should not overestimate the impact that the pure emotion generated by the relatives of the victims will have in the long run. Such passion is powerful but it is not a substitute for reason. Nor can it be sustained indefinitely. That is why people like Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is puffed in a column this weekend by the New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd saying his goal is to “disenfranchise the N.R.A.,” are not going to succeed.

Sympathy is a powerful motivating factor in any political discussion and the value of the Newtown victims to the anti-gun forces is that it puts their arguments in a context that cannot be directly refuted. The families of the victims, like the survivors of any horrific event, are, by definition, above reproach and must be heard in respectful silence rather than be subjected to the usual and appropriate back and forth that is par for the course for those speaking on any contentious issue. The fact that they have generally couched their statements in a general manner rather than honing in on specifics and avoided lashing out in rage against groups that oppose gun control has only enhanced their appeal.

The piece by the Times‘s queen of snark will be seized on by opponents of the Manchin-Toomey compromise as one more proof that what is at stake here is not just provisions like background checks at gun shows that can truly be characterized as “common sense” measures but just the first step toward a push toward infringing if not effectively annulling the Second Amendment. Murphy, whom Dowd tells us does not even allow his young children to play with toy guns, is not helping liberals persuade Americans that their long-term goal is not widespread restrictions on legal gun ownership.

This illustrates the left’s problem on guns. It can only succeed in advancing their agenda on guns so long as the bloody shirt of Newtown is being waved. When the tears subside and we catch our collective breath, allowing us to look clearly at what the president has proposed, what more and more Americans are seeing is that proposals about so-called assault weapons and ammunition magazines would do little or nothing to lower the volume of gun violence, let alone avoid another Newtown.

The point about the exploitation of the families of the victims in the gun debate is not that there is anything wrong about their statements, even if they were to inject themselves in an even more direct manner in the controversy. Rather, it is that ours is a system of laws not individuals or sentiment. The checks and balances inherent in the system serve to slow down the pace of legislation, which is something that, as Dowd writes, frustrates the Newtown families. But the genius of our constitutional system is that it is designed specifically to mute the voice of the crowd, especially when it is driven by by emotion such as that which liberals and the Newtown families are seeking to harness.

Public opinion is variable, but the Constitution is strong enough to survive even against the assault of liberal ideologues even when sympathetic victims back them. American democracy gives a fair hearing to those who feel their own experiences in tragedies enables them to speak with authority on the issues. But such feelings, no matter how rooted in tragedy or how much pity they compel across the board from their fellow citizens, cannot transform a weak argument about the law into a strong one. 

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Fayyad’s Exit Signals Oslo’s Bankruptcy

The resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a pivotal moment in the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Given that it is the product of an internal Palestinian political struggle rather than one in which Jews and Arabs are grappling for power, that may seem an exaggeration. But its significance should not be underestimated. The exit of the Palestinian technocrat lays bare the collapse of what the New York Times called “Fayyadism”—the hope that Palestinian nationalism would be refocused on development and coexistence rather than violence. Without the fig leaf of responsibility that Fayyad provided for the PA, the idea that it is anything but the same corrupt regime fatally compromised by connections with terror rings false.

The inability of Fayyad to either generate much public support among the people of the West Bank or to use his credentials as a respected international figure to outmaneuver Abbas is a tragedy for the Palestinian people. His failure dooms them to a choice between the venal and incompetent cadres of Fatah or the bloody Islamist tyranny of Hamas (which has always regarded the banishment of Fayyad from office as a precondition for any unity scheme with Abbas and the PA). That is unfortunate. The only question is whether those pushing Israel to further empower the now Fayyad-less PA will draw the only possible conclusion from these events and understand that the two-state solution that could conceivably solve the conflict must await a sea change in Palestinian politics that will allow another Fayyad to emerge and succeed.

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The resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a pivotal moment in the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Given that it is the product of an internal Palestinian political struggle rather than one in which Jews and Arabs are grappling for power, that may seem an exaggeration. But its significance should not be underestimated. The exit of the Palestinian technocrat lays bare the collapse of what the New York Times called “Fayyadism”—the hope that Palestinian nationalism would be refocused on development and coexistence rather than violence. Without the fig leaf of responsibility that Fayyad provided for the PA, the idea that it is anything but the same corrupt regime fatally compromised by connections with terror rings false.

The inability of Fayyad to either generate much public support among the people of the West Bank or to use his credentials as a respected international figure to outmaneuver Abbas is a tragedy for the Palestinian people. His failure dooms them to a choice between the venal and incompetent cadres of Fatah or the bloody Islamist tyranny of Hamas (which has always regarded the banishment of Fayyad from office as a precondition for any unity scheme with Abbas and the PA). That is unfortunate. The only question is whether those pushing Israel to further empower the now Fayyad-less PA will draw the only possible conclusion from these events and understand that the two-state solution that could conceivably solve the conflict must await a sea change in Palestinian politics that will allow another Fayyad to emerge and succeed.

There will be those who will inevitably blame Israel for Fayyad’s resignation since many in the world are incapable of interpreting any event that is construed as negative without seeing it as a manifestation of the malign influence of the Jewish state. But this is nonsense. Fayyad has always had the strong support of both the United States (under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations) and of Israel, which despite its suspicions about the PA has seen him as an essential interlocutor and partner. His problem is that Abbas’s Fatah Party viewed him as an obstacle to both their drive for political hegemony in the West Bank as well as to the continuation of their crooked patronage schemes that diverted foreign aid money into the pockets of their leaders. As Jonathan Schanzer, who understands Palestinian politics as well as anybody writing about the subject in the West, wrote on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies blog this week as events unfolded:

With the most powerful faction in the West Bank gunning for Fayyad, it is likely a question of when, not if, the Palestinian premier departs.  This would be a blow to Palestinian reform efforts, but also shine a spotlight on the leadership deficit in the West Bank.

 It should be conceded that for those who see the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace solely from the frame of reference of the Jewish state’s problems in controlling large numbers of Arabs, the question of who runs a Palestinian government has always been considered irrelevant. Peace Now and other groups that venerated the Oslo Accords and the peace process were perfectly willing to hand over territory to a murderer and thief like Yasir Arafat and opposed all efforts to hold him accountable. So it should be anticipated that they, and others who push for Israeli withdrawals in order to weaken the Jewish state rather than to supposedly strengthen it by ending the “occupation,” will not care much whether the face of Palestinian nationalism is Fayyad, Abbas (currently serving the ninth year of the four-year term as president that he was elected to) or one of Hamas’s Islamists.

But the lack of a Fayyad matters because without him or someone like him, there is no pretense that what the peace processers seek to create in the West Bank is not a state living in peace with Israel (no matter where its borders are drawn) or its other Arab neighbors but a kleptocracy run by terrorists. If it is the former, then there is no doubt that a majority of the Israeli people would be willing to make painful compromises to achieve peace. If it is the latter, that is not only bad news for the Palestinian people who must suffer the depredations such tyrants will impose on them but it is also a guarantee that the terms of any peace deal signed with them will not be observed.

This conundrum goes to the heart of the original motivations behind the Oslo process that created the PA in 1993.

Shimon Peres may have conceived the Oslo process as a path to a “New Middle East” in which Israel and a Palestinian state led by Fayyads would create a Benelux-like enclave in the Middle East. The late Yitzhak Rabin went along with Peres’s Oslo gambit from a different point of view. He thought handing the territories over to Arafat would work because the old terrorist would be willing to settle for statehood in only part of the country and would then be free to quash Hamas and any other terrorists without the interference of a Supreme Court or gadfly groups like B’Tselem that inhibited Israeli counter-terror measures.

As it turns out, both of these men were wrong. Peres’s hopes about what the PA would become were delusional. But the hard-boiled Rabin was just as wrong to think a Palestinian state led by corrupt terrorists isn’t antithetical to the entire concept of two states for two peoples living alongside each other in peace. That was just as true for the slightly more presentable Abbas and his Fatah colleagues as it was for Arafat. This has already been amply demonstrated, first by Arafat’s use of terrorism and then by what has happened in Gaza where an independent Palestinian state in all but name already exists.

Fayyad’s tragedy was not just that both Fatah and Hamas wanted to be rid of him but that he was a man with virtually no support among ordinary Palestinians. So long as shedding Jewish blood is the main factor that gives a Palestinian political party credibility, men like Fayyad will have no chance no matter how much they are applauded by Americans or Israelis. The collapse of his effort to change Palestinian politics is therefore a key moment that should signal to the world that it must dispense with the theories of both Peres and Rabin and cease ignoring reality in favor of illusions.

That is something that groups and governments determined to keep funneling cash into the coffers of the PA and to push Israel to make concessions to it must understand. Until they do, the discussion about the peace process will continue to be a tragic waste of time and effort.

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Margaret [Thatcher], Bill [Buckley], and Ron [Reagan]

In a graceful 1975 column titled “Just Call Me Bill,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about his correspondence with Margaret Thatcher after she appeared on his TV show as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Buckley always referred to others as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on television, even if he knew them well, but after Mrs. Thatcher called him “Bill” at one point during the interview, he felt he could write her a “Dear Margaret” letter. She responded with a “Dear Mr. Buckley” letter, and on checking the transcript of the interview, he was shocked to discover that on the show she had been referring to a piece of legislation, not his first name.

At the beginning of this year, Thatcher’s papers from 1982 were released, under the 30-year rule that governs such releases. Included in them is a secret personal message she sent to President Reagan on May 5, 1982, in the midst of the Falklands war. She had just completed a four-hour meeting with her cabinet to discuss U.S. proposals for a negotiated settlement, and she wrote to Reagan privately “because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say.” Her message continued as follows:

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In a graceful 1975 column titled “Just Call Me Bill,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about his correspondence with Margaret Thatcher after she appeared on his TV show as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Buckley always referred to others as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on television, even if he knew them well, but after Mrs. Thatcher called him “Bill” at one point during the interview, he felt he could write her a “Dear Margaret” letter. She responded with a “Dear Mr. Buckley” letter, and on checking the transcript of the interview, he was shocked to discover that on the show she had been referring to a piece of legislation, not his first name.

At the beginning of this year, Thatcher’s papers from 1982 were released, under the 30-year rule that governs such releases. Included in them is a secret personal message she sent to President Reagan on May 5, 1982, in the midst of the Falklands war. She had just completed a four-hour meeting with her cabinet to discuss U.S. proposals for a negotiated settlement, and she wrote to Reagan privately “because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say.” Her message continued as follows:

Throughout my administration I have tried to stay loyal to the United States as our great ally and to the principles of democracy, liberty and justice for which both of our countries stand.

In your message you say that your suggestions are faithful to the basic principles we must protect. But the present rulers of the Argentine will not respect those principles, and I fear deeply that if a settlement based on your suggestions is eventually achieved, we shall find that in the process of negotiation democracy and freedom for the Falkland Islanders will have been compromised.

Above all, the present proposals do not provide unambiguously for a right to self-determination, although it is fundamental to democracy and was enjoyed by the Islanders up to the moment of invasion …

I also believe that the friendship between the United States and Britain matters very much to the future of the free world. That is why, with the changes Francis Pym has suggested to Al Haig, we are ready, with whatever misgivings, to go along with your latest proposals. Assuming that they are accepted by the Argentines, then during the negotiation period that will follow we shall have to fight fiercely for the rights of the Falklanders who have been so loyal to everything in which you and we believe.

The Argentinians rejected the terms for negotiation the next day, so the U.S. proposal never became a reality. The historical significance of Thatcher’s message to Reagan relates less to the Falklands crisis itself than to the personal relationship she and Reagan had established by the second year of his presidency. The May 5, 1982 secret message was addressed to “Ron,” and it was signed simply, “Margaret.”

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This Day in History (and Current Events)

Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”

The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.

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Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”

The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.

At an April 9 press conference in Tel Aviv, Bow Shapira from Israeli TV (Channel 1) told Kerry he wanted to ask about “a guarantee from the past”–the 2004 Bush letter, which he described as “telling that blocs of settlements can stay, cannot [be] removed from the territory.” His question about the guarantee was straightforward: “well, does it exist?” Kerry responded in part as follows:

I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed, and obviously, we’re talking about blocs that are in a very different status. I’m not going to get into telling you what ought to happen with respect to any particular piece of geography today because that’s for the parties to decide in their negotiation. But I have certainly supported the notion publicly myself that we need to deal with the ’67 lines, plus the swaps that reflect some of the changes that have taken place since then.

It is not surprising that Kerry remembered the commitment so well. He appeared on “Meet the Press” on April 18, 2004–four days after the Bush letter was issued–and was asked directly about it by Tim Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

Kerry’s response to the Israeli reporter last week is significant, because he recognized: (1) that the Bush letter was in fact a commitment, subsequently endorsed by both the Senate (95-3) and the House (407-9) in concurrent resolutions; and (2) that he supported it at the time, in unambiguous terms.

But it is indicative of the continuing problem President Obama created with his refusal in 2009 to endorse the Bush letter that an Israeli reporter felt it necessary to ask whether the U.S. commitment exists. The president has been attempting to assure Israelis with his have-your-back, all-options-on-the-table rhetorical commitments, but they remember that in the past he did not feel constrained to respect even a written commitment to Israel. 

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