Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 18, 2013

Will Bibi Trade Iran for Palestine?

On Sunday, 17 members of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition sent him a letter making it clear they want no part of an Oslo rerun which would involve further surrender of territory and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The group, which included five deputy ministers, referenced last week’s 20th anniversary of the 1993 Oslo Accords which set off two decades of peace processing but they were most eager to quote, at length, a 2002 speech by Netanyahu in which he pledged never to accept a Palestinian state, since, as he said at the time, it would present a deadly threat to the Jewish state. But the context was the current negotiations currently being conducted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that were convened earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But since no one, except perhaps for Kerry, thinks there’s a ghost of a chance that those talks will result in an agreement, it’s worth asking what exactly the 17 members of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties are worrying about?

Interestingly, one of the leaders of this faction, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, acknowledged that consensus when he told the Times of Israel that the signers of the letter thought there was no chance the talks with the Palestinians would succeed, but said “we want to make sure we won’t be surprised.” What kind of a surprise is he anticipating? Israeli journalist Ben Caspit writing in AL Monitor thinks he has the answer to that question. According to Caspit, there may be a secret deal already in place that will guarantee Netanyahu’s agreement to a Palestinian state. The broad outline of that deal is this: Palestine for Iran. That means Israel trades a diplomatic triumph in the peace talks in exchange for an ironclad guarantee that the U.S. will prevent Iran from going nuclear. If, as Caspit claims, this proposal is already common knowledge in the upper echelons of the coalition, Kerry’s revival of the peace process with the Palestinians is merely a shadow game masking the real negotiations between the U.S. and Israel and that’s what really scares the Israeli right. Yet while Caspit’s claims seem to have substance, the assumption that Netanyahu or Obama are either interested in or capable of coming to such an agreement is still doubtful.

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On Sunday, 17 members of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition sent him a letter making it clear they want no part of an Oslo rerun which would involve further surrender of territory and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The group, which included five deputy ministers, referenced last week’s 20th anniversary of the 1993 Oslo Accords which set off two decades of peace processing but they were most eager to quote, at length, a 2002 speech by Netanyahu in which he pledged never to accept a Palestinian state, since, as he said at the time, it would present a deadly threat to the Jewish state. But the context was the current negotiations currently being conducted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that were convened earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But since no one, except perhaps for Kerry, thinks there’s a ghost of a chance that those talks will result in an agreement, it’s worth asking what exactly the 17 members of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties are worrying about?

Interestingly, one of the leaders of this faction, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, acknowledged that consensus when he told the Times of Israel that the signers of the letter thought there was no chance the talks with the Palestinians would succeed, but said “we want to make sure we won’t be surprised.” What kind of a surprise is he anticipating? Israeli journalist Ben Caspit writing in AL Monitor thinks he has the answer to that question. According to Caspit, there may be a secret deal already in place that will guarantee Netanyahu’s agreement to a Palestinian state. The broad outline of that deal is this: Palestine for Iran. That means Israel trades a diplomatic triumph in the peace talks in exchange for an ironclad guarantee that the U.S. will prevent Iran from going nuclear. If, as Caspit claims, this proposal is already common knowledge in the upper echelons of the coalition, Kerry’s revival of the peace process with the Palestinians is merely a shadow game masking the real negotiations between the U.S. and Israel and that’s what really scares the Israeli right. Yet while Caspit’s claims seem to have substance, the assumption that Netanyahu or Obama are either interested in or capable of coming to such an agreement is still doubtful.

The first problem with any potential U.S.-Israel deal is the Iran component. Given the justified Israeli skepticism about the West’s infatuation with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it is highly debatable whether Netanyahu would or could trust any promise from Obama on the subject. Obama’s disastrous handling of the Syrian chemical weapons issue only accentuates those doubts. It is reasonable to argue that Israel has no alternative but to trust U.S. promises on Iran since the window for the Jewish state to attack on its own may be closing. A diplomatic resolution of the nuclear dilemma or a U.S. attack would be far preferable than an Israeli strike that would have to be smaller in scale and therefore less effective. But right now the notion that Obama’s word is his bond is the sort of assumption that no rational person, let alone a cynic like Netanyahu can make, especially when the stakes are this high. Since Obama’s end of this deal will likely mean a diplomatic agreement with Iran and Netanyahu is not likely to believe Tehran has any interest in observing such a deal or that the U.S. would be willing to threaten an attack to enforce, it is hard to see how he could be cajoled into accepting it.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that Obama can make such a promise and that Netanyahu and a majority of his government would buy it, any deal on “Palestine” will necessarily involve the Palestinians. The reason why the current talks have no chance is the same as the one that doomed previous negotiations, including the three Israeli offers of statehood that the Palestinians rejected. No Palestinian leader and certainly not a weakling like Mahmoud Abbas, has the will or the ability to sign any accord that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Those who agree with Caspit’s claims more or less concede this but the theory behind the “Israel for Palestine” thesis posits that what will happen is that after Kerry’s talks fail, Obama will present Netanyahu with his own plan that the Israeli would have to accept. So would the Palestinians. Caspit says that would mean an Israeli withdrawal to the separation fence but not from Jerusalem or the major West Bank settlement banks that are enclosed by the barrier. No outlying settlements would be evacuated (theoretically preventing the breakup of the Likud over the deal) but much of the West Bank — how much Caspit is not sure — would be left for the Palestinians to have as their state that would be recognized by the U.N., the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. would promise the Palestinians that the borders would not be final but merely an interim stage before more negotiations that would reap them more territory including a share of Jerusalem.

Would the Palestinians accept such an interim deal? It would certainly be in their interests to do so since sovereignty would strengthen their position in future talks.

Yet even if we buy into the idea that Netanyahu longs to be treated with the international respect that goes to peacemakers and will break faith with his coalition in order to get it, there is no way he would agree to such a deal without the Palestinians being forced to agree to end the conflict for all time by recognizing Israel as the Jewish state and giving up on the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees. And that is something that Abbas is not likely to do no matter what the temptations since doing so would strengthen his Hamas rivals and endanger his life.

There are other reasons to think this may not happen.

One is that all of the loose talk about a secret deal already in place may be disinformation being spread by the United States or by some Israelis in order to build momentum for a peace deal. Anyone who believes everything they hear coming out of the mouth of Israeli politicians or U.S. diplomats is also likely to buy a bridge in Brooklyn.

Another is that Caspit’s concept takes it as a given that President Obama is willing to do anything to achieve peace in the Middle East in the same manner that Bill Clinton employed when he was orchestrating the process during the late 1990s as Oslo unraveled. Assuming that Obama has the will to do something on Iran is hard enough to believe. Making a similar assumption about his willingness to expend much of his increasingly scarce political capital to take a chance on Middle East peace is even harder. Though presidents sinking into irrelevance during troubled second terms often turn to foreign policy for triumphs they can no longer achieve at home, the notion that Obama is willing to take the chance it will all blow up in his face as it did to Clinton after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks and Yasir Arafat’s launch of the second intifada requires a prodigious leap of faith.

Last, there is the enigma of Netanyahu. As Caspit acknowledges, “Sometimes Netanyahu does reach agreements, but it is only on very rare occasions that he implements them.” Though he has traveled a long way toward accepting the concept of a two-state solution, he is not likely to repeat the mistakes made by his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon. If he does sign on to a deal it will not be one that will trade land for terror as they did but for a complete and final peace. As much as he considers maintaining the alliance with the United States to be one of his top priorities, he has also shown he knows Israel must set limits on how far it can be pushed by its superpower friend. Moreover, the belief that his longing to be thought of as an eminent statesman will cause him to sacrifice his country’s security or give up one vital interest for another is to underestimate his character and his innate skepticism.

Rather than being a stalking horse for a future Obama peace plan, the Kerry talks may be exactly what they appear to be: a diplomatic dead-end pushed by a hubristic secretary of state with no plan B to deal with the consequences of certain failure. Supporters of Palestinian statehood hope and Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon make the deal with Obama that Caspit writes about but until we see it with our own eyes the rest of us should take “Iran for Palestine” with a shovelful of salt.

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Should Omar al-Bashir Be Arrested?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is a war criminal. That he is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Darfur and elsewhere is disputed by few besides Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and blogger Juan Cole. Regardless, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Bashir and ordered his arrest.

Bashir will now put the White House’s embrace of the United Nations to the test. Sudan has announced that it is seeking a U.S. visa for Bashir to come to the United Nations General Assembly later this month. The question now arises: While it seems clear the United States should issue the visa as part of its role as host of the United Nations, many activists are also suggesting that Bashir should be arrested when he steps onto U.S. soil. The ICC has issued a statement “remind[ing] the United States of America of the two outstanding warrants of arrest against Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir and the requests for arrest and surrender.”

What should the United States do?

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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is a war criminal. That he is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Darfur and elsewhere is disputed by few besides Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and blogger Juan Cole. Regardless, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Bashir and ordered his arrest.

Bashir will now put the White House’s embrace of the United Nations to the test. Sudan has announced that it is seeking a U.S. visa for Bashir to come to the United Nations General Assembly later this month. The question now arises: While it seems clear the United States should issue the visa as part of its role as host of the United Nations, many activists are also suggesting that Bashir should be arrested when he steps onto U.S. soil. The ICC has issued a statement “remind[ing] the United States of America of the two outstanding warrants of arrest against Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir and the requests for arrest and surrender.”

What should the United States do?

I tend to agree with Julian Ku—law professor, prolific blogger on issues relating to sovereignty, and a college classmate—in his opinion expressed at Opiniojuris:

If the U.S. arrests Bashir, they are violating at least one, and maybe two, important international legal obligations.  And, as the ICC chamber makes clear, the U.S. has no legal obligation to detain Bashir.  So from a purely legal point of view, this is a no-brainer: the U.S. should grant Bashir a visa, and let him come and go unmolested. In this light, we seem to be back to the “illegal but legitimate” conversation that we were having over a possible U.S. strike into Syria.  Kevin’s post on that comparison makes a similar point. But here is a difficult question for international lawyers.  Arresting Bashir would plainly be illegal, but it would almost certainly be legitimate to most people, like Mia Farrow… Still, is legitimacy enough to act illegally?  And if it is, why wasn’t that standard good enough to justify a US strike into Syria?

Regardless, the Bashir visit should provide the plainest test to those in Obama’s constituency that place the ICC, responsibility to protect, and the sense of the United Nations above other considerations. Bashir should be treated like a pariah and U.S. officials should not make him feel welcome, but neither should they molest him. That might be unfortunate, but so long as the UN remains in New York, it is fact. That Obama’s ICC-embracing constituency will see that their emperor has no clothes is the only silver lining to the situation.

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Trust Iran’s No Nuke Pledge?

It’s quite amazing how many pundits and journalists treat Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s promise that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons with anything besides great skepticism.

First of all, Iranian leaders have a history of making sweeping promises to Western audiences and then violating the same promises. Several years ago, I chronicled a number of these promises, here. My favorite? Promising to lift the fatwa ordering British author Salman Rushdie’s murder. On May 18, 1999, the Iranian government finally promised to lift the fatwa in return for the British reopening their embassy in Tehran. The British obliged. The next day, the Iranian government re-imposed its bounty on Rushdie. Indeed, killing Rushdie remains one of the missions listed on this recent Iranian application to be a suicide bomber.

That Rouhani is making the vow should give pause, given how Rowhani once expounded on a strategy to feint concession while advancing Iran’s nuclear program. More on Iranian strategy, here.

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It’s quite amazing how many pundits and journalists treat Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s promise that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons with anything besides great skepticism.

First of all, Iranian leaders have a history of making sweeping promises to Western audiences and then violating the same promises. Several years ago, I chronicled a number of these promises, here. My favorite? Promising to lift the fatwa ordering British author Salman Rushdie’s murder. On May 18, 1999, the Iranian government finally promised to lift the fatwa in return for the British reopening their embassy in Tehran. The British obliged. The next day, the Iranian government re-imposed its bounty on Rushdie. Indeed, killing Rushdie remains one of the missions listed on this recent Iranian application to be a suicide bomber.

That Rouhani is making the vow should give pause, given how Rowhani once expounded on a strategy to feint concession while advancing Iran’s nuclear program. More on Iranian strategy, here.

Now, some analysts point to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s alleged fatwa banning nuclear weapons. Alas, while Khamenei lists his fatwas on his website, the so-called nuclear fatwa is not among them. Why bother putting something in writing if diplomats are willing to embrace what they have neither seen nor read?

Diplomats often put process against substance. Giddiness at the possibility of sitting down with adversaries too often trumps the results of such meetings. Until Supreme Leader Khamenei publicly and unequivocally announces the suspension of Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment, forfeiture of its more highly-enriched stockpiles, and an opening of all facilities, both declared and undeclared to inspectors, then Rowhani’s outreach must be interpreted as more a tactic for delay than sincere.

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Gates and Panetta Take Obama to Task

It is rare enough for current or former White House aides to publicly criticize a president still in office, as David Stockman and George Stephanopoulos notoriously did in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. It is virtually unheard of for senior cabinet members to do so. Which it makes it all the more shocking and telling that two of President Obama’s former secretaries of defense–both models of discretion–have gone public with criticism of his handling of Syria.

Speaking at a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta did not agree on the wisdom of air strikes on Syria–Gates was against them, Panetta for them. (Gates was for arming the moderate opposition and for seeking war crimes indictments against Assad and his goons–something that Obama has failed to do.) But both excoriated the president for asking Congress for authorization for air strikes.

According to the New York Times, Panetta had this to say about recent events:

When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word. Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word, then we back it up.

As for Gates, the Times quotes him as warning of the dangers of a “no” vote in Congress:

“It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.”

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It is rare enough for current or former White House aides to publicly criticize a president still in office, as David Stockman and George Stephanopoulos notoriously did in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. It is virtually unheard of for senior cabinet members to do so. Which it makes it all the more shocking and telling that two of President Obama’s former secretaries of defense–both models of discretion–have gone public with criticism of his handling of Syria.

Speaking at a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta did not agree on the wisdom of air strikes on Syria–Gates was against them, Panetta for them. (Gates was for arming the moderate opposition and for seeking war crimes indictments against Assad and his goons–something that Obama has failed to do.) But both excoriated the president for asking Congress for authorization for air strikes.

According to the New York Times, Panetta had this to say about recent events:

When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word. Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word, then we back it up.

As for Gates, the Times quotes him as warning of the dangers of a “no” vote in Congress:

“It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.”

Yet another former Obama appointee, acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, joined in the chorus of criticism in a separate interview expressing skepticism about whether the deal worked out with Russia will be adhered to by Syria: “I think this is the Syrians playing for time,” Mr. Morrell told Foreign Policy magazine. “I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons.”

Both Panetta and Gates agreed on another point–that Obama’s irresolution in Syria is sending a dangerous signal to Tehran. “Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta is quoted as saying. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.”

Coming from partisan Republicans, such indictments can be dismissed with a shrug and a “business as usual” line from the White House. There is no way, however, to dismiss the comments of such respected elder statesmen–one of them a Democrat, the other the most centrist and nonpartisan of Republicans. What a devastating indictment it is, all the more so because it is irrefutable.

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Iran’s Funeral for a Terrorist’s Mom

Writing at Iranwire.com, journalist Reza HaghighatNejad puts together a useful photo essay of dignitaries attending the funeral of the mother Qods Force chief (and designated terrorist) Qasem Soleimani. HaghighatNejad is correct to note:

As political barometers go, nothing tops a regime funeral in Iran. Who attended from which faction, who received a triple-kiss, who sent gladiolas and a note; often these events are more illuminating in matters of state than an election. In that light, the event of the year was surely the funeral of the mother of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Qods Force, held in Tehran this past weekend.

When I was in southern Iraq during the Iranian elections earlier this summer, I did a debate on the meaning of Hassan Rouhani’s victory via telephone on an NPR affiliate in California. Iraqis who were hearing one side of the conversation could not understand the purpose of the debate. “Don’t Americans understand that Qasem Soleimani is the real president of Iran?” one asked.

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Writing at Iranwire.com, journalist Reza HaghighatNejad puts together a useful photo essay of dignitaries attending the funeral of the mother Qods Force chief (and designated terrorist) Qasem Soleimani. HaghighatNejad is correct to note:

As political barometers go, nothing tops a regime funeral in Iran. Who attended from which faction, who received a triple-kiss, who sent gladiolas and a note; often these events are more illuminating in matters of state than an election. In that light, the event of the year was surely the funeral of the mother of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Qods Force, held in Tehran this past weekend.

When I was in southern Iraq during the Iranian elections earlier this summer, I did a debate on the meaning of Hassan Rouhani’s victory via telephone on an NPR affiliate in California. Iraqis who were hearing one side of the conversation could not understand the purpose of the debate. “Don’t Americans understand that Qasem Soleimani is the real president of Iran?” one asked.

While the West hopes for change and rumors abound about the possibility of bilateral tête-à-têtes, the embrace of Soleimani should not be ignored:

The message of condolence sent by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei topped the proceedings, read aloud and describing Soleimani’s service to Islam and Muslims as a “valuable treasure.” In response, Soleimani, in rather uncustomary manner, relayed his own message to the Supreme Leader, in which he called himself “ashamed and lowly” before Khamenei’s favour, and declared his wish to martyr himself in recompense. Soleimani went on to call Khamenei a peerless leader and the true head of the Muslim world, underscoring both his ideological affiliation with and total obedience to the Supreme Leader.

And lest the White House place its hopes in the so-called reformists, former President Mohammad Khatami might be a useful barometer of just what the reformists stand for:

As unexpected messages go, the missive of former president Mohammad Khatami has also caught the Iranians media’s attention. Despite some friction between the Revolutionary Guards and Khatami during his tenure (the Guards threatened to intervene in 1999 if Khatami didn’t clean up the Tehran University student protests himself), in recent years it has been said that the relationship between Soleimani and Khatami is actually decent. Khatami’s condolence note seemed to confirm that, praising the commander’s record in resistance and martyrdom.

At any rate, the whole photo essay is worth a look, as some of the Islamic Republic’s shadiest characters appear briefly in the limelight.

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The Fed Stands Pat on the Stimulus

In a bit of a surprise, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee voted 11-1 to continue its program of buying $85 billion worth of federal and mortgage bonds in order to continue stimulating the economy. It had announced in June that it would begin cutting back on these purchases by the end of the year and many expected it to begin doing so today. 

Both Paul Krugman who wrote earlier this week, “Memo to the Fed: Please don’t do it” and the financial markets, which love low interest rates, are happy. The S&P 500 index hit a new high on the news.

By buying these bonds, the Fed is, in effect, creating money, almost $1 trillion a year in new money. Since the financial meltdown in 2008, the Fed has created many trillions of dollars trying to stabilize the economy and then revive it. At some point it will have to begin to reduce and then reverse its bond purchases and get that money back into its capacious vaults lest a virulent inflation break out.

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In a bit of a surprise, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee voted 11-1 to continue its program of buying $85 billion worth of federal and mortgage bonds in order to continue stimulating the economy. It had announced in June that it would begin cutting back on these purchases by the end of the year and many expected it to begin doing so today. 

Both Paul Krugman who wrote earlier this week, “Memo to the Fed: Please don’t do it” and the financial markets, which love low interest rates, are happy. The S&P 500 index hit a new high on the news.

By buying these bonds, the Fed is, in effect, creating money, almost $1 trillion a year in new money. Since the financial meltdown in 2008, the Fed has created many trillions of dollars trying to stabilize the economy and then revive it. At some point it will have to begin to reduce and then reverse its bond purchases and get that money back into its capacious vaults lest a virulent inflation break out.

The timing will be tricky, to put it mildly. Too quickly and it could throw the economy back into recession. Too slowly and we could be back to the 1970′s, with double-digit inflation.

Let’s hope they get it right.

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Rouhanimania Will Upstage Bibi at UN

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined his agenda for his trip to New York for the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations this month. Netanyahu will hope to remind both his American ally and the international community of the nuclear threat from Iran and, as the New York Times reports, restated a four point plan that would take the world back from the brink of a confrontation:

Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet that Iran must stop enriching uranium, remove enriched uranium from the country, close its nuclear plant near Qum and stop what he called “the plutonium track.”

“Until all four of these measures are achieved, the pressure on Iran must be increased and not relaxed, and certainly not eased,” the prime minister said in a statement released by his office.

Netanyahu’s right that these are exactly the measures needed to ensure that Iran really is stopped from developing a nuclear weapon but the chances of this argument getting much of a hearing next week are slim and none. Even if Netanyahu brings cartoon characters in costume with him to the U.N. podium to illustrate the imminent danger of Iran’s growing stockpile of refined uranium as well as their plutonium alternative in a follow-up to the cartoon red line straight out of Wiley Coyote’s Acme catalogue that he drew last year, it’s almost certain he will be overshadowed by the appearance of the West’s great hope for peace with Iran: the Islamic regime’s new President Hassan Rouhani. Though evidence of Rouhani’s alleged moderation is still lacking, the contrast with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is so great that many in the media and official Washington are starting to speak of him as an Iranian version of Bobby Kennedy. With Rouhanimania in full bloom in New York, the Israeli insistence on telling the truth about Tehran’s intentions and the need for the West to not get suckered into another round of dead-end negotiations with the Iranians will make Netanyahu appear to be a party-pooper.

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Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined his agenda for his trip to New York for the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations this month. Netanyahu will hope to remind both his American ally and the international community of the nuclear threat from Iran and, as the New York Times reports, restated a four point plan that would take the world back from the brink of a confrontation:

Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet that Iran must stop enriching uranium, remove enriched uranium from the country, close its nuclear plant near Qum and stop what he called “the plutonium track.”

“Until all four of these measures are achieved, the pressure on Iran must be increased and not relaxed, and certainly not eased,” the prime minister said in a statement released by his office.

Netanyahu’s right that these are exactly the measures needed to ensure that Iran really is stopped from developing a nuclear weapon but the chances of this argument getting much of a hearing next week are slim and none. Even if Netanyahu brings cartoon characters in costume with him to the U.N. podium to illustrate the imminent danger of Iran’s growing stockpile of refined uranium as well as their plutonium alternative in a follow-up to the cartoon red line straight out of Wiley Coyote’s Acme catalogue that he drew last year, it’s almost certain he will be overshadowed by the appearance of the West’s great hope for peace with Iran: the Islamic regime’s new President Hassan Rouhani. Though evidence of Rouhani’s alleged moderation is still lacking, the contrast with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is so great that many in the media and official Washington are starting to speak of him as an Iranian version of Bobby Kennedy. With Rouhanimania in full bloom in New York, the Israeli insistence on telling the truth about Tehran’s intentions and the need for the West to not get suckered into another round of dead-end negotiations with the Iranians will make Netanyahu appear to be a party-pooper.

Full credit should be given to Iran for doing everything possible to feed the Rouhanimania of a Western foreign policy establishment and media eager to help President Obama back down from his repeated promises to stop Iran. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, the real boss of Iran, Supreme Leader Grant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed Rouhani’s outreach by saying it was time for “heroic leniency.” The regime also freed 11 political prisoners in an effort to weaken the critique of Iran’s appalling human rights policy.

But the main centerpiece of the Iranian charm offensive remains Rouhani, a veteran Islamist who was one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s foot soldiers and later served as part of the country’s security apparatus when it began sponsoring international terrorism such as the attack on the Jewish communal building in Buenos Aires, Argentina that took the lives of 85 persons. Rouhani has exchanged letters with President Obama and has become the almost obsessive focus of many in the West on the idea that Iran is about to change its policies. As I wrote yesterday, Rouhani’s statements about accepting Syria’s wishes about its future and offer of closing one of its nuclear facilities are being interpreted as signs that his presidency can provide a reset of relations with Iran.

While prisoner release and nuclear reactor shutdowns would be welcome, those who buy into Rouhanimania need to understand whom it is they are dealing with and put his strategy into the context of Iran’s long-term goals.

Permitting Rouhani to run in the fake presidential election that Iran held was a masterstroke by Khameini. Though a rigid Islamist tyrant, he seems to have a grasp of international public opinion. Allowing Ahmadinejad to become the public face of Iran around the world was a terrible mistake. The former Iranian president’s public embrace of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial made it easier for Westerners to understand just how brutal the Islamist state really is. Removing him from the picture and replacing him with someone that can be represented as a moderate who desires peace changes nothing of substance in Tehran but it is just the excuse to embark on a new round of diplomacy with Iran that the Obama administration desired.

As long as Rouhani surrenders nothing of value to the West — including its right to pursue nuclear capability — he will serve a useful purpose for a regime that has suffered from the international sanctions applied against it in recent years. But those who buy into Rouhanimania need to understand that his goal is the lifting of those sanctions, not stepping back Iran’s sponsoring of international terrorism, ceasing its military intervention in the Syrian civil war or giving up its nuclear options. Moreover, as long as he keeps the West engaged in diplomacy there is no chance the U.S. or Israel will be able to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before it is too late.

It may be too much to hope for the U.S. to see through this charade but these are points to remember as we watch Rouhani become everyone’s favorite Iranian in the UN media crush.

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The Obama West Wing and Me

Peter Baker and Jeremy Peters of the New York Times have a story in which they report that now deep in his fifth year in office, “Mr. Obama finds himself frustrated by members of his own party weary of his leadership and increasingly willing to defy him.”

In the article I’m (accurately) quoted as saying, “It makes it a lot harder when it’s your own party. You can’t fire back with the same intensity and vehemence as when it’s the other party. And it just changes the dynamics — people expect you to be criticized by the other party. When your own party does it, it’s an indication of weakness.”

So what was the West Wing’s reaction to my comments? A source told Mike Allen of Politico, “Bernie Sanders and Peter Wehner — not Democrats.”

This strikes me as a silly response. Let’s begin by pointing out that while Senator Sanders isn’t a Democrat–he’s an Independent and self-described democratic socialist–he caucuses with the Democrats. Which makes him a de facto member of the Democratic Party.

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Peter Baker and Jeremy Peters of the New York Times have a story in which they report that now deep in his fifth year in office, “Mr. Obama finds himself frustrated by members of his own party weary of his leadership and increasingly willing to defy him.”

In the article I’m (accurately) quoted as saying, “It makes it a lot harder when it’s your own party. You can’t fire back with the same intensity and vehemence as when it’s the other party. And it just changes the dynamics — people expect you to be criticized by the other party. When your own party does it, it’s an indication of weakness.”

So what was the West Wing’s reaction to my comments? A source told Mike Allen of Politico, “Bernie Sanders and Peter Wehner — not Democrats.”

This strikes me as a silly response. Let’s begin by pointing out that while Senator Sanders isn’t a Democrat–he’s an Independent and self-described democratic socialist–he caucuses with the Democrats. Which makes him a de facto member of the Democratic Party.

Beyond that, the claims made by Messrs. Baker and Peters are clearly true. They point out that in recent weeks:

disgruntled Democrats, particularly liberals, have bolted from the White House on issues like National Security Agency surveillance policies, a planned military strike on Syria and the potential choice of Lawrence H. Summers to lead the Federal Reserve. In private, they often sound exasperated describing Mr. Obama’s operation; in public, they are sometimes only a little more restrained.

I’d add to that list the fact that it was the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, who earlier this year pulled President Obama’s gun-control legislation after (as this Washington Post story reported) Mr. Obama’s comprehensive gun-control effort suffered defeat in the Democratically-controlled Senate, with all the major proposals he backed failing to gain enough votes. And it was a Democratic senator, Max Baucus, who in April referred to the Affordable Care Act as “a huge train wreck coming down.”

The Obama presidency is in a state of disrepair. The president’s support among Democrats is now below 80 percent, which is dangerous territory this early into a second term and doesn’t bode well for the mid-term election next year. There’s a widespread perception, rooted in reality, that the president is weak, out of touch, and out of gas. He’s become a tired and tiresome figure. Americans are tuning him out. 

In sum, then, it’s been quite a bad year for Mr. Obama. And it’s reasonable to assume that things will get worse, not better, for this most incompetent community-organizer-turned-commander-in-chief.

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Have Conservatives Rescued Obama?

After a year of a stagnant economy, scandals, legislative failure, declining public approval, worries about the ObamaCare rollout, and the Syria fiasco, the Obama presidency appears to be on life support. The crackup of the coalition that elected and reelected him is no secret. The liberal media is no longer slavishly applauding his every move with Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’s queen of snark, noting today that the president has “lost the room” when it comes to connecting with his base. Even worse, in a key indicator of whether the president has crossed the boundary into lame-duck status, rank-and-file congressional Democrats are routinely defying him on all sorts of issues. With no chance of passing anything on his agenda this fall and having demonstrated conclusively with Syria that he is unable to deal with foreign crises, it should be a long, cold winter at the White House rendered even more bleak by the knowledge that what will follow in the 2014 midterms will likely make his final two years in office an even bigger nightmare.

But this accounting of his problems could be offset by one clear asset: an irrational opposition. As bad as things look for Obama, the president’s ace in the hole remains a Republican Party that seems intent on shooting themselves in the foot and thus rescuing an otherwise lost presidency. That’s why the embattled and often clueless inhabitants of the West Wing are feeling a bit more chipper today with the news that the House Republican leadership has bowed to the desires of its members and will present a measure for a vote on Friday to keep the government afloat that will eliminate funding for ObamaCare. But in doing so, with the certain knowledge that such a bill would be dead on the arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate and that the president will never agree to the spiking of his signature health-care legislation, Republicans are setting in motion a train of events that will trigger a government shutdown.

Having played chicken several times with the House GOP leadership on the budget and the debt ceiling in the hope that they would do just this, it appears that the president is finally getting his wish. And that is the one thing that could rescue an otherwise dead-in-the-water presidency.

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After a year of a stagnant economy, scandals, legislative failure, declining public approval, worries about the ObamaCare rollout, and the Syria fiasco, the Obama presidency appears to be on life support. The crackup of the coalition that elected and reelected him is no secret. The liberal media is no longer slavishly applauding his every move with Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’s queen of snark, noting today that the president has “lost the room” when it comes to connecting with his base. Even worse, in a key indicator of whether the president has crossed the boundary into lame-duck status, rank-and-file congressional Democrats are routinely defying him on all sorts of issues. With no chance of passing anything on his agenda this fall and having demonstrated conclusively with Syria that he is unable to deal with foreign crises, it should be a long, cold winter at the White House rendered even more bleak by the knowledge that what will follow in the 2014 midterms will likely make his final two years in office an even bigger nightmare.

But this accounting of his problems could be offset by one clear asset: an irrational opposition. As bad as things look for Obama, the president’s ace in the hole remains a Republican Party that seems intent on shooting themselves in the foot and thus rescuing an otherwise lost presidency. That’s why the embattled and often clueless inhabitants of the West Wing are feeling a bit more chipper today with the news that the House Republican leadership has bowed to the desires of its members and will present a measure for a vote on Friday to keep the government afloat that will eliminate funding for ObamaCare. But in doing so, with the certain knowledge that such a bill would be dead on the arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate and that the president will never agree to the spiking of his signature health-care legislation, Republicans are setting in motion a train of events that will trigger a government shutdown.

Having played chicken several times with the House GOP leadership on the budget and the debt ceiling in the hope that they would do just this, it appears that the president is finally getting his wish. And that is the one thing that could rescue an otherwise dead-in-the-water presidency.

As our John Podhoretz wrote in today’s New York Post, the president lacks a policy to defend but Republicans lack a strategy as they mindlessly pursue a confrontation with the White House without the slightest idea of how they can prevail. The irony is that while the administration seems hopelessly lost on every front, Obama’s opponents are so insecure about their ability to pursue a long-term strategy of winning back the Senate next year and the presidency two years after that, that much of their base now is only focused on having their representatives and senators demonstrating their willingness to fight Obama and ObamaCare even though doing so in this manner is likely to result in a major shot in the arm for the object of their hostility.

The arguments for the shutdown are not entirely irrational. Conservatives preaching that this confrontation must be the litmus test for Republican integrity are right when they say ObamaCare is deeply unpopular and a disaster in the making that will damage the economy once its full effect is felt. They also say, not without justice, that responsibility for the shutdown should fall equally on the president for not blinking on ObamaCare.

But Obama and the Democrats understand that as much as the public dislikes and fears ObamaCare they are even unhappier about anything that would shut down the government. Republicans are right when they say it isn’t fair that the blame for a shutdown will fall primarily on them and not equally on Obama for not blinking on ObamaCare. As John also aptly notes, it is shameful that President Obama has no compunction about surrendering to Vladimir Putin even though he has stated that ousting the Syrian regime is a matter of life and death, but would rather die himself than negotiate in good faith and give an inch to the Republicans on ObamaCare.

But who told the GOP that life was fair? The fact is, so long as Republicans are the ones demonstrating dislike of government and a desire to stop by other means a bill that they have never been able to muster the votes in both bodies to repeal, it is inevitable that the liberal media will rally to Obama’s side on this issue and that a critical mass of public opinion will follow suit and assign more blame to the GOP for a damaging standoff than the president.

This will give an otherwise crippled presidency a new lease on life. Rather than being forced to deal with an anemic economy and be held accountable for the devastating impact ObamaCare will have on the nation’s fiscal health in the next year, a shutdown will provide a useful distraction for the White House. Moreover, since it is almost certain that congressional Republicans will be the first ones to blink—as they have more to lose from the confrontation—the drama will also allow the president to look like a winner. All this will enable him to spend the next year campaigning—something he prefers to governing—against the GOP and blaming it for everything that ails the country.

That Republicans appear to be on the verge of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory at this moment will be considered nothing less than astonishing to future generations. But it will come as no surprise to anyone that follows what passes for reasoned debate in conservative circles these days. For much of the right, the only thing that counts is demonstrating resistance to Obama in every possible way. Rather than sensing the president’s weakness and coolly picking their fights in order to gain ground on entitlement and tax reform—two key points on which Republicans are the party of ideas and the Democrats the defenders of a crumbling status quo—conservatives see only their own helplessness as ObamaCare is rolled out. Rather than intelligently choosing a battle on their own ground that can be won, they prefer a dramatic cavalry charge that will be nothing less than a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand.

Perhaps it is understandable that so many conservatives feel this way after two demoralizing presidential election defeats at the hands of a man they rightly feel is manifestly unqualified to preside over the nation’s fortunes. But rather than taking heart from how recent events have proven them right, instead many on the right are descending even deeper into the pit of despair and succumbing to the kind of conspiracy theory mania in which no rational argument can win. If you see Barack Obama as the moral equivalent of al-Qaeda it isn’t a stretch to see Republicans that are, in the eyes of some, insufficiently angry with the president as similarly traitorous. It is this dynamic that has fueled the suicide caucus’s drive to push for a shutdown confrontation.

Thus, after weeks of failure capped by Obama’s tone-deaf response to the Washington shooting, the Obama presidency is about to get a new lease on life just at the moment that it was about to fade into irrelevance. I’ve little doubt that many on the right will blame Obama’s recovery on a weak Republican leadership rather than examine their own mistakes. But if anyone in the GOP wishes to stop this march of folly, now would be a good time to pull the emergency brake on a decision that Democrats are praying for.

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Syrian, Turkish Precedents and the Nightmare Scenario

Martin Kramer wrote an illuminating post yesterday on why American handling of the chemical-weapons crisis in Syria has unnerved Israel by causing it to doubt that America would attack Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. While I agree with his conclusion, I think that’s only part of the story. After all, most Israelis would prefer to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis diplomatically, so one could argue–as some Israeli commentators have–that Syria sets an encouraging precedent: American threats to use military force seemingly persuaded Damascus to give up its nonconventional weapons voluntarily, which is precisely what many Israelis hope will happen in Iran.

The problem is that such an agreement only works if it’s strictly enforced, meaning any noncompliance produces massive punishment. Otherwise, even the thinnest façade of compliance will suffice to enable the signatory to maintain its nonconventional weapons program with impunity, which would be Israel’s nightmare scenario on Iran. And there are three reasons for thinking that’s precisely what the Syrian agreement will do. One is that the agreement is problematic to begin with, providing ample opportunities for evasion. The second, as Kramer explained, is that President Barack Obama’s original decision to punt the question of using force in Syria to Congress makes any military action to punish noncompliance unlikely. The third is Obama’s track record of refusing to enforce the agreements he brokers even when punishing violations wouldn’t necessitate the use of force, and would hence be much easier.

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Martin Kramer wrote an illuminating post yesterday on why American handling of the chemical-weapons crisis in Syria has unnerved Israel by causing it to doubt that America would attack Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. While I agree with his conclusion, I think that’s only part of the story. After all, most Israelis would prefer to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis diplomatically, so one could argue–as some Israeli commentators have–that Syria sets an encouraging precedent: American threats to use military force seemingly persuaded Damascus to give up its nonconventional weapons voluntarily, which is precisely what many Israelis hope will happen in Iran.

The problem is that such an agreement only works if it’s strictly enforced, meaning any noncompliance produces massive punishment. Otherwise, even the thinnest façade of compliance will suffice to enable the signatory to maintain its nonconventional weapons program with impunity, which would be Israel’s nightmare scenario on Iran. And there are three reasons for thinking that’s precisely what the Syrian agreement will do. One is that the agreement is problematic to begin with, providing ample opportunities for evasion. The second, as Kramer explained, is that President Barack Obama’s original decision to punt the question of using force in Syria to Congress makes any military action to punish noncompliance unlikely. The third is Obama’s track record of refusing to enforce the agreements he brokers even when punishing violations wouldn’t necessitate the use of force, and would hence be much easier.

Nothing better illustrates this than an astounding interview given by the Greek ambassador to Israel last week. According to Spiros Lampridis, six months after Israel apologized to Turkey for its botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza–under an agreement personally brokered by Obama that was supposed to result in Turkey resuming normal relations with Israel–Ankara is still vetoing any NATO cooperation with Israel.

I wrote last month about Obama’s unconscionable silence after Turkey unilaterally appended two new conditions to the agreement and then used them as a pretext for not implementing its own commitments under the deal. But if you wanted to make excuses, you could at least argue that all these commitments dealt with domestic issues (returning Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, ending its show trials of senior Israeli officials, etc.), over which America’s influence is naturally more limited.

No such excuse applies to NATO. Not only is America the undisputed leader of that alliance, but NATO is currently manning Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria, at Ankara’s request. Yet Obama has made no effort to pressure Turkey, even though its veto not only harms NATO’s relations with Israel but also its relations with other traditional American allies like Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. As Lampridis explained, NATO doesn’t deal with these countries individually, but as part of a Mediterranean bloc that includes Israel. Hence no Israel also means no Jordan or Morocco.

Moreover, this is happening at a time when Israel has not only fulfilled its part of the bargain but is also, as Lampridis noted, “demonstrating goodwill” beyond what the deal requires: It’s preventing significant damage to Turkish businesses by letting hundreds of Turkish trucks carrying millions of dollars worth of cargo travel to Jordan (and thence the Gulf states) via Israel every week, since they can no longer travel via Syria.

This, then, is Israel’s real nightmare: not that Obama won’t attack Iran if necessary, but that he’ll sign a loophole-ridden agreement with Iran (moves in this direction have already begun) that would also prevent Israel from attacking Iran if necessary–and then fail to enforce it, just as he has with the Turkish agreement, thereby enabling Tehran to get the bomb.

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