Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 23, 2013

Syria’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

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When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

There is only one problem: President Obama’s decision not to launch a strike against the Syrian regime contradicts, rather than flows, from his claim. An American intervention would, if anything, help end the war. By contrast, American inaction will prolong Syria’s civil war, and it will potentially make its outcomes worse for American interests.

One such outcome–the jihadi nature of part of the rebel forces–was routinely cited by administration officials as a reason for caution. And yet, it is increasingly obvious that there is a direct correlation between Western inaction and the rise of jihadis among the rebels.

Today, the Washington Post reports that the flow of weapons to Syria’s opposition is going mostly to Islamist rebels–thanks to a renewed commitment from Gulf donors not to let the Sunni rebellion lose out after America threatened and then cancelled a military strike.

Clearly, if there is no Western support for moderate forces, fears that aid to the rebels may end up strengthening jihadi elements will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with far-reaching consequences. One will be that if Syria falls to the rebels, it will be a hub for jihadi activities. Another is that the more jihadi foreign fighters survive the war to return to their homes, the more jihadis will be ready for more action against the West in years to come. So much for defeating al-Qaeda and making it irrelevant, then–America’s choice of delegating a role in this conflict to regional powers will dilute American efforts to eradicate the al-Qaeda franchise from the region.

This is just one aspect of the Syria conundrum that clearly undermines the president’s rhetoric. It is not the only one, but it suffices to show that in fact, President Obama’s legacy will not be to end wars but only to ensure that America avoids them at all costs–whatever the long-term consequences for America and its vital interests.

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Oh To Be Young and Socialist Again

If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

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If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

Any attempt to refight the political wars of the 1980s may be a futile endeavor, but the willingness of the press to allow de Blasio to paint his support for the Sandinistas as part of the journey that led him to the mayoralty bodes ill for the city. That’s not just because the Sandinista cause was largely discredited when they were finally forced by the stalemate in the fighting to face the people of Nicaragua in a democratic election. Their defeat at the polls vindicated the efforts of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to support the rebels who resisted the Marxists and exposed the group’s supporters like de Blasio as fronts for Communist killers.

That may not be a disqualifying attribute to many New York voters, but it ought to give pause to those whose livelihoods and safety will depend on de Blasio and the wrecking crew he brings to City Hall next January not demolishing all that Giuliani and Bloomberg accomplished in the last 20 years.

To those who are either too young or too deluded by liberal propaganda to know better, the struggle against the socialism that de Blasio backed was the most important battle fought in the last half of the 20th century. Those who aimed at stopping socialism were not trying to hurt the poor; they were defending human rights against a political cause that sacrificed more than 100 million victims on the Marxist altar. The verdict of history was delivered as the Berlin Wall fell and the “socialist motherland” collapsed, and along with it much of the ideological house of cards that liberals had built as they sought to discredit or defeat anti-Communists. It says a lot about de Blasio’s commitment to that vicious political faith that even after the Iron Curtain fell and the peoples of captive Eastern Europe celebrated the defeat of the Communist cause that he would make a pilgrimage to one of its last strongholds in Cuba to celebrate his marriage.

If de Blasio were willing to admit that much of what he said in defense of the Sandinistas and Cuba was wrong, there would be nothing to say now about his past other than to state that he had learned from it. But since he appears to be proud of his support for tyrants, it is fair game for his critics. More to the point, it is also worth asking just how much those experiences still influence a politician who will have at his disposal the vast powers of the mayoralty. 

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The Remarkable Pope Francis

In his 12,000 word interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis revealed the heart of an extraordinary man.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, did not change Catholic Church doctrine. But six months into his papacy, through his words and his actions, he has changed its emphasis and tone.

Richard B. Hays, a widely respected scholar on New Testament ethics, has written that any ethic that intends to be biblical must seek “to get the accents in the right place.” And that is, I think, what Francis is attempting to do. It isn’t that he believes the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion are wrong. “The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said. But in his words, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“We have to find a new balance,” Francis went on to say, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Francis is on to something quite important. A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t want to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God, even though we all see through a glass darkly. He also worries, as do I, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes create an exclusionist religious culture where moral rules are elevated above grace.

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In his 12,000 word interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis revealed the heart of an extraordinary man.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, did not change Catholic Church doctrine. But six months into his papacy, through his words and his actions, he has changed its emphasis and tone.

Richard B. Hays, a widely respected scholar on New Testament ethics, has written that any ethic that intends to be biblical must seek “to get the accents in the right place.” And that is, I think, what Francis is attempting to do. It isn’t that he believes the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion are wrong. “The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said. But in his words, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“We have to find a new balance,” Francis went on to say, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Francis is on to something quite important. A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t want to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God, even though we all see through a glass darkly. He also worries, as do I, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes create an exclusionist religious culture where moral rules are elevated above grace.

In describing his vision of the church, Francis speaks about it as “a field hospital after battle.”

“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” according to Pope Francis. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” he added. And he spoke about the church as “the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

The thing the church needs most today, Jorge Bergoglio said, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.” The minsters of the Gospel must be people “who walk through the dark night with [others], who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” And then he added this: “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

As a Christian (but non-Catholic), this strikes me as quite right. The church was created in large part to be a refuge, a source of support and fellowship; a place characterized by love and gentleness, encouragement and accountability. And a place that helps restore integrity and wholeness to our lives. Those who share my faith believe there is liberation to be had and peace to be found in knowing that we are God’s beloved and by living in alignment with His purposes for our lives. But all of us come to Him with brokenness in our lives, and that ought to command from us some degree of humility and empathy–and some aversion to judgmentalism and censoriousness. In a world in which people hold profoundly different views and hold them with some passion–and where moral truths need to be affirmed–it isn’t easy for people of faith to be known more for mercy than condemnation, for words that encourage and uplift rather than wound. But that is what we’re called to be. 

For those who believe that framing things this way is a clever but mistaken way of pitting moral rectitude against love–who believe it is equivocating when people of faith should be standing strong and tall in a world of rising licentiousness and immorality–there’s no way to prove who is definitively right or wrong. The devil can quote Scripture for his purposes, Shakespeare wrote. Our life experiences, dispositions, and temperaments draw us to different interpretations and understandings of the true nature of things. 

My own perspective is that life is filled with joy and wonder to be sure; but there is also the pain and hardship of living in a fallen world. That people whose lives seem so well put together on the surface are struggling with fears and failures below it. And that often we find ourselves living somewhere else than we thought we’d be. Many of us, then, find ourselves in need of grace and redemption. Which is why the words of this remarkable pope have such resonance with us.

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The ObamaCare Shutdown Crackup

It started as an appeal to principle against pure pragmatism. It is ending as farce. After getting their way in the House of Representatives last Friday when House Speaker John Boehner agreed to push through a bill funding the government but not ObamaCare, Tea Party hardliners were faced with a problem. Once the bill was in the Senate’s hands, the Democratic majority would trash it. So in order to continue their quixotic quest, Senator Ted Cruz, whose fiery rhetoric and implicit threats of primary opposition for any Republican who didn’t join his suicide caucus had helped create this dilemma, had to come up with a tactic that would keep the fight going without immediately kicking it back to the House. Ever resourceful, Cruz found an answer. But it is not one that is going to do his cause any good.

Cruz’s solution to the problem was to effectively back a filibuster of the House bill that he supports. No, that’s not a typographical error. In order to stop ObamaCare, Senate conservatives are going to have to vote against cloture of the bill that they spent the last few weeks cajoling and threatening the House GOP to pass. But as they say in Texas, that is a dog that will not hunt.

Theoretically, the tactic will trigger the showdown with President Obama and the Democrats that Cruz has been assuring the GOP grass roots can be won if only Republicans don’t lose their nerve. But in order to get there he is forcing Senate Republicans to adopt a hypocritical stance that is too much for even some of the most stalwart conservatives and libertarians. Put simply, if even Rand Paul thinks this is a situation where some compromise is called for, it’s time to drop the curtain on the government shutdown drama that has convulsed the Republican Party and threatens to rescue an Obama administration that is about to fade into lame-duck irrelevancy.

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It started as an appeal to principle against pure pragmatism. It is ending as farce. After getting their way in the House of Representatives last Friday when House Speaker John Boehner agreed to push through a bill funding the government but not ObamaCare, Tea Party hardliners were faced with a problem. Once the bill was in the Senate’s hands, the Democratic majority would trash it. So in order to continue their quixotic quest, Senator Ted Cruz, whose fiery rhetoric and implicit threats of primary opposition for any Republican who didn’t join his suicide caucus had helped create this dilemma, had to come up with a tactic that would keep the fight going without immediately kicking it back to the House. Ever resourceful, Cruz found an answer. But it is not one that is going to do his cause any good.

Cruz’s solution to the problem was to effectively back a filibuster of the House bill that he supports. No, that’s not a typographical error. In order to stop ObamaCare, Senate conservatives are going to have to vote against cloture of the bill that they spent the last few weeks cajoling and threatening the House GOP to pass. But as they say in Texas, that is a dog that will not hunt.

Theoretically, the tactic will trigger the showdown with President Obama and the Democrats that Cruz has been assuring the GOP grass roots can be won if only Republicans don’t lose their nerve. But in order to get there he is forcing Senate Republicans to adopt a hypocritical stance that is too much for even some of the most stalwart conservatives and libertarians. Put simply, if even Rand Paul thinks this is a situation where some compromise is called for, it’s time to drop the curtain on the government shutdown drama that has convulsed the Republican Party and threatens to rescue an Obama administration that is about to fade into lame-duck irrelevancy.

To say that Senate Republicans aren’t buying Cruz’s cynical stand is an understatement. While no one should ever underestimate the willingness of U.S. senators to twist themselves into pretzels to gain a momentary advantage, asking the GOP to filibuster the very bill they begged the House to pass is a bridge too far even for Cruz. There is no way that he will get 41 Republicans to go along with this farce, and for good reason.

Even if one thought that, at least in theory, it was possible for Republicans to go to the brink with the president over defunding the government over ObamaCare, to do so in this manner isn’t just suicidal; it’s insane. As difficult a sell as a shutdown would be for the GOP, to do so while filibustering your own party’s bill should be considered excessive even by Cruz’s standards. The president was always going to win such a standoff, but if that is the ground on which the Republicans choose to make their stand, the administration doesn’t even have to make much of an effort to convince the public that any damage that results from a shutdown should be blamed on the GOP.

And that should lead those who have spent the last week blasting Boehner as a craven hostage of his Tea Party caucus to rethink their evaluation of the speaker. By going along with those conservatives clamoring for eliminating funding for ObamaCare, he seemed to be caving in and supporting a shutdown. But what he has done is to merely serve the ball back into Cruz’s court, knowing full well that the Texan has no viable option to continue the battle. Rather than setting a shutdown in motion, Boehner’s action may actually be the first step toward a rational agreement that will allow the GOP to avoid going over the cliff with the Tea Party. Since he has given his members a chance to vote to defund ObamaCare, the failure of the Senate firebrands may enable him to ask the House to pass a compromise that will avoid catastrophe.

Cruz and his followers will denounce such rational behavior, but if Boehner eventually gets his way President Obama will have good reason to be disappointed. As much as ObamaCare is a mess that should never have been passed, there is simply no path to its elimination so long as the Democrats control the White House and the Senate. Recognizing this fact isn’t the act of a RINO, it is merely rational analysis of the problem. The crackup of the shutdown effort illustrates that Cruz and company are all about the rhetoric but never had a game plan to actually get their way. Republicans should pay close attention to the way this is playing out and thank Providence if their party narrowly avoids the disaster they seemed headed for last week.

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The Mistaken Focus on “Core Al-Qaeda”

President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

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President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

In Nairobi, a squad of gunmen from the Somali group al-Shabab have massacred at least 68 people in an upscale mall while holding others hostage–an attack reminiscent, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, of the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008.

In Iraq, one suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in Baghdad, killing at least 16 and wounding more than 30, while another blew up in a residential area of Kirkuk, wounding at least 35 people. These are the latest in a series of terrible attacks in Iraq, which, according to the Associated Press, have seen “more than 4,000 people … killed between April and August, a level of carnage not seen since 2006 to 2008, when Iraq was nearing civil war.”

Yet another suicide attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed at least 78 people, including 34 women and seven children, at a church. This was presumably the handiwork of the Pakistani Taliban.

Oh, and two Israeli soldiers were slain in the West Bank, one by a sniper, the other by a duplicitous Palestinian acquaintance.

All of these attacks do not suggest that Islamist groups are on their way to seizing power in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. Indeed, the Shabab attack was, in many ways, a sign of the group’s weakness in Somalia, where it has suffered defeats on the ground from Kenyan and African Union troops. Shabab is turning to terrorist attacks against soft targets in Uganda and Kenya to remain relevant.

But what these attacks show is that Islamist groups–some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, others not–are far from defeated. They still have considerable capacity to wreak carnage and, given the weakness of regimes that are fighting them across the Middle East and Africa, they can make substantial inroads into failed states.

President Obama and the American national security establishment have been too focused on “core” al-Qaeda while downplaying the menace from these other groups on the periphery, which continue to pose as big a threat as ever.

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Palestinian Leaks Show Failure of Talks Is Foreordained

Palestinians have killed two Israeli soldiers in planned attacks over the last three days; the armed wing of Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party has proudly claimed responsibility for both killings (though Israeli officials are skeptical); and the Palestinian Authority that Abbas heads–Israel’s so-called peace partner–has yet to muster even a lukewarm condemnation of the murders. In a normal universe, this might raise doubts about the prospects of the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But anyone who has been following the negotiations already knows these prospects are nonexistent: Aside from all the reasons I listed three weeks ago, the constant stream of PA leaks about the talks is a dead giveaway.

Ever since negotiations resumed in late July, PA officials having been giving the media gloomy progress reports on an almost daily basis, thereby violating the explicit commitment both sides gave Secretary of State John Kerry not to talk about what happens at the negotiating sessions. That alone attests to bad faith. But what’s really remarkable is that while all the Palestinian leaks agree the talks are going nowhere, they offer blatantly contradictory reasons for this conclusion. In other words, the “facts” on which this conclusion is supposedly based can’t possibly be true.

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Palestinians have killed two Israeli soldiers in planned attacks over the last three days; the armed wing of Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party has proudly claimed responsibility for both killings (though Israeli officials are skeptical); and the Palestinian Authority that Abbas heads–Israel’s so-called peace partner–has yet to muster even a lukewarm condemnation of the murders. In a normal universe, this might raise doubts about the prospects of the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But anyone who has been following the negotiations already knows these prospects are nonexistent: Aside from all the reasons I listed three weeks ago, the constant stream of PA leaks about the talks is a dead giveaway.

Ever since negotiations resumed in late July, PA officials having been giving the media gloomy progress reports on an almost daily basis, thereby violating the explicit commitment both sides gave Secretary of State John Kerry not to talk about what happens at the negotiating sessions. That alone attests to bad faith. But what’s really remarkable is that while all the Palestinian leaks agree the talks are going nowhere, they offer blatantly contradictory reasons for this conclusion. In other words, the “facts” on which this conclusion is supposedly based can’t possibly be true.

Over the space of just a few days earlier this month, one Palestinian official said Israel had done nothing for the past six weeks but present the issues it wants to discuss; another said Israel had proposed an interim deal for a Palestinian state with temporary borders on 60 percent of the West Bank; and a third said Israel had made an unacceptable final-status offer that would give Palestinians 90 percent of the West Bank while leaving Israel in control of the border crossings with Jordan. These three statements are clearly mutually exclusive: If, for instance, Israel has done nothing but outline the issues it wants to discuss, it can’t have offered either temporary or permanent borders. Similarly, if Israel has made a final-status offer, then it hasn’t just proposed an interim deal. 

In short, the Palestinian claim of “no progress” is evidently independent of whatever actually happened in the talks, and Palestinian officials don’t even care who knows it: They have no problem espousing mutually contradictory explanations. But if the “no progress” claim is unrelated to actual developments in the talks, then its obvious purpose is to prepare world opinion to blame Israel when the negotiations reach their foreordained breakdown. After months of hearing nonstop Palestinian complaints about how Israel is stymieing the talks, without Israel offering any counter-narrative (since it has thus far honored its pledge to stay mum), the world will obviously be primed to believe that Israel is at fault.

Nor need one look far to understand why the PA would plan for a breakdown a priori: The talks have zero support among ordinary Palestinians. As the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh reported back in July, not a single Palestinian faction favored resuming the negotiations, and yesterday, several Palestinian groups launched a public campaign to demand an end to the talks while also opposing any Palestinian concessions whatsoever as part of a deal.

So with no support for a deal at home, Abbas has little choice but to plan for how to blame Israel for a breakdown. The only question is whether the U.S. is willing to let him get away with it.

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